Anxiety and fear of the unknown
Anxiety, stress and panic
Anxiety is fear of the unknown. An impending sense of uncertainty, or a stress response to a perceived threat in the future. The brain and body are often caught up in sensations and feelings of tension, or a sense of apprehension that keeps the mind locked into a cycle of excessive worry, anticipation and panic.
Anxiety can also be a raw, visceral sensation that convinces the person suffering anxiety, they are about to become ill or befall harm – such as physical, emotional or even fatal harm. Often a person will feel breathless, trapped or notice their heart racing and imagine the worst possible outcome. This is when the anticipated event is being experienced “as if it were happening now”, even though it isn’t. Some people even screenplay catastrophic events in their head, or play out imaginary scenes of conflict and engage in internal dialogue before speaking to someone they are about to confront.
Occasionally, anxiety may be experienced at lower levels of intensity – such as feelings of edginess, unease or simmering dread. This kind of anxiety may be ignored for a while and remains outside of the person’s awareness until the last minute, but eventually, it catches up with them. This means that whatever people fear is about to happen, doesn’t actually happen, but can create a self-fulfilling prophesy where the imagined threat is brought forward – such as when a person fears being abandoned, ends a relationship pre-emptively. Or when someone expects to be attacked, so gripped with paranoia and picks a fight over seemingly trivial events.
Anxiety is often focused on an unidentified source, or deflected onto a person or object that isn’t the original cause of stress. It can cause us to experience hair-trigger emotions, mood swings, angry outbursts and even panic attacks. Some people may feel so overwhelmed by their response to anxiety they shut-down, become emotionally withdrawn and disconnected from themselves. They may become detached and numb for days.
This is because the brain-body freezes and goes into a dissociative state in order to cope with anxiety. Others may conduct compulsive routines and rituals to offset anxious feelings, or develop phobias and patterns of avoidance that never really bring relief. Children may go into reveries, daydreams or pace up-and-down.
In social situations, people who experience anxiety will feel socially awkward, shy or unable to assert themselves. They might search frantically for the right words to say, or imagine themselves being humiliated and embarrassed by their own social inhibitions. They may also be afraid to voice their opinions, express their feelings or fear intimacy in case they reveal their vulnerability. Those who experience anxiety in relationships may not be able to confront their partners, assert their boundaries or feel they have a right to say no.
Typically such people seek to pacify, placate or please others. They may feel that their ability to articulate feelings is inadequate, or even unwelcome to loved ones. Anger is an emotion which is particularly avoided, almost at the cost of their own self-interest or sense of identity. Anxious people rarely acknowledge their own self-worth, and often feel devalued by others.
Instead of voicing their dissatisfaction, openly and directly, such people may find indirect ways of showing their anger – by shutting down, withdrawing and becoming emotionally unavailable or giving their loved ones the silent treatment. They may turn-up late to events or forget to fulfil their responsibilities. They may sabotage a task they have been asked to complete, play helpless or make a promise they cannot keep.
Most of these emotions, thoughts and behaviours are driven by unconscious impulses and rarely form part of a conscious or calculated thought process. So how can counselling help people break this cycle of anxiety and avoidant behaviours?
Breaking the cycle of anxiety and avoidant behaviours
Emotional regulation – counselling can help us slow-down and restore a sense of balance to our emotional states. It can help us to learn how to relax and use sensorimotor activities to take care of our bodies and reduce the intensity of our anxiety. As well as learning mirroring exercises that give us the capacity to develop a better self-image and use this to restore our sense of confidence, self-esteem and acceptance.
Discharging stress hormones – by learning physical and mental exercises that enable us to discharge harmful stress hormones, such as cortisol, lactic acid and the adrenalin that cause our bodies to feel nervous and tense. We can learn to integrate these activities with physical exercise, yoga, Tai Chi and stretching to learn how to clear the body of stress chemicals instinctively.
Being in the moment – counselling can help us find the time to sit quietly and alone with ourselves, reflecting on our lives more compassionately and without judgment. Paying attention to our feelings and sensations in the present moment, rather than getting caught up in excessive preoccupations with the past or imagined future catastrophes.
Mindfulness – we may learn a number of breathing techniques and how to be more mindful by observing our physical sensations and emotions. These act as a barometer for our health and well-being, learning the triggers and early warning signals of stress long before it’s allowed to escalate into full-blown anxiety.
Unconscious impulses – we can learn to be more aware of our unconscious triggers which may be caused by traumatic memories of the past; as well as learned avoidance behaviours that have become conditioned habits or deeply embedded defence mechanisms.
Learning approach behaviours – we may seek to break old habits and avoidance behaviours; learning to make better choices and using a wider range of alternative approaches to resolve our problems. As well as learning how to take manageable risks, challenge ourselves and confront a degree of adversity in order to overcome our fears. This increases our ‘window of tolerance’ for anxiety.
Assertive communication – we may learn how to communicate more effectively with people without falling into patterns of aggression or passivity. By asserting your self-interest without exploiting, harming or offending others and using the principle: “Me first; but with you-in-mind” (assertive) rather than “Me first; at your expense” (aggressive), or “You first; at my expense” (passive), or “You first; I’ll get you later” (passive-aggressive).
Negotiating boundaries – counselling helps you learn to negotiate your boundaries with people so that you can look after your own interests and stand up for yourself, while letting other people know where they stand. Making your expectations of others clear and direct; as well as disentangling from co-dependent relationships without getting caught up in other people’s dramas or intense emotions.
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