The future of anxiety
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Neil Turner UKCP MBACP - Individuals & Couples
29th July, 20130 Comments
As science is helping us understand more about how our brains work, we are discovering how certain anxious and traumatic memories can get trapped in our minds keeping us stuck in a cycle of fear and avoidance. This understanding has helped create techniques that can help shift some of the traumatic memories from our brains enabling relief from recurring anxiety. To understand our anxiety and its relationship to past trauma it helps to also know the nature of our time travelling minds.
The experience of anxiety in the here and now can evoke powerful feelings that often overshadow any rational understanding of where the anxieties originate. However, deeper exploration may demonstrate that our mind is plugged into the past and as such informs our experience of the current situation. When a difficult event has already happened our minds can have a tendency to go back there and re-live it, sometimes simply to better understand what happened. At other times we have no control over this movement and find ourselves experiencing the same fears and anxieties time and time again. Similarly, if our mind is plugged into the future there may be feelings of fear and worry. When we perceive a difficult situation that has yet to happen we can conjure up imagined scenarios in order to prepare ourselves for what we believe might occur. Whether re-living the past or predicting the future, we lose ourselves in virtual situations that only exist within our minds and as such cause us stress and turmoil.
Sometimes a past memory is so drastic and shocking that it gets locked within the brain and the body as trauma. Here, a past event can be triggered as if it is happening right now. The memory of this past event is trapped inside us and can be reactivated by a signal from the outside world setting off the painful experience of the event. Internally it may be experienced as panic, shock and terror. Whilst there there may be little correlation to the actual external realities the signal is strong enough to set off a chain reaction as our minds travel back to that past traumatic event.
Similarly, projecting ourselves into the future can create crippling anxiety leaving us vulnerable and scared. As a result we may avoid situations, withdraw or have a constant sense of being overwhelmed and unable to cope. We feel that we're not going to survive and the stress we experience leaves us exhausted, full of tension, dread and unable to move forward with our lives.
How can we unlock ourselves from being prisoners of a traumatic past or fearful future?
Knowing in which direction are minds are travelling is a start. Once we know where much of our energy is being invested we can begin to unplug and bring ourselves back into the present moment. A bit like the cable from a small vacuum cleaner that retracts into the body of the appliance. Realising how much time we spend in the past or the future can be a huge revelation and may help us understand some of the origins of our anxieties. Coming back to the present moment is the easiest yet the most difficult thing to do and a task we may have to do over and over again. Realising we're in the past and coming back. Realising we're in the future and coming back. Again, again and again. Through this we may begin to understand the wild nature of our minds and how much we find ourselves at its mercy. Eckhart Tolle, in his book 'The Power of Now' talks about this very clearly;
"As soon as you honor the present moment, all unhappiness and struggle dissolve, and life begins to flow with ease. When you act out of the present-moment awareness, whatever you do becomes imbued with a sense of quality, care, and love - even the most simple action."
Meditation is a structured way in which to learn how it is possible to tame our minds and come fully into the present moment. With many variations available, including Transcendental, Mindfulness and Vipassana meditation, it's worth exploring different approaches to see which best suits.
How can therapy help?
When anxiety is being activated through traumatic memories, psychotherapy can help us move beyond these 'alive' memories so that we come back to ourselves and can then move on with our lives. Talking through these difficult memories can help reduce some of the 'real' feelings that occur in the body as if they are still happening or perhaps feel as if they are about to happen.
EMDR is a technique widely used for treating the effects of trauma. It stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing and is a very effective way of moving stuck memories from the rational side of the brain, where the memories are understood as real, to the other side of the brain where they can be processed. Sometimes when the 'alive' memories are reprocessed they may then become more static, carry less feeling and as such evoke less anxiety. EMDR is often used to treat post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which is sometimes experienced by survivors of war, accidents or abuse. Increasingly it's used to treat low level trauma where, for example, someone may have social anxiety as a result of bullying or sustained psychological belittling. An EMDR practitioner works by focusing on the traumatic memories until they are less 'alive'. The work here is very focused and often short-term.
We all live in a world where stress and anxiety are on the increase as our lives get faster and busier. Many people are working longer, as well as juggling family and financial responsibilities so it's no wonder that some of us feel overwhelmed and unable to cope. Combine this with our anxious time-travelling mind and it's a recipe for panic and fear. Therapy can provide a space in which to off-load some of the burden, understand where our fears may be coming from and explore what we need to best support ourselves as we move forward into the future.
Anxiety is becoming increasingly manageable as we gain more understanding about how our brains and bodies work and the interrelationship of the two. Tools, that can help us shift from stuck trauma, and techniques to help us become more present in our lives are increasingly available. Working with a professional can help us move beyond the cycle of anxiety towards the life we really want for ourselves.
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