Anxiety explained: What might be causing your anxiety?
Feelings of anxiety are one of the most common reasons for people to decide to go to therapy. You might be experiencing anything from a vague sense of discomfort through to sudden, visceral panic, and find yourself wanting to understand what is going on. These sensations are signs that there is something in your inner world that is asking for attention. It may also be that something in your life isn’t quite working. Or possibly a significant life event has recently occurred, so you know what the trigger is, but you’re left with feelings that you don’t want and aren’t sure how to deal with.
So what is anxiety?
It is a reaction to a sense of threat in our environment. We are wired the same way we were when we lived primitive lives in caves. When we needed to quickly and instinctively react to the threat of a predator. To flood our bodies with the adrenaline, carrying more blood to our muscles and gearing us up for fight, flight or freeze. This is a bodily function which is important for our survival, still today, helping us to avert danger. But in the modern world it often over-fires. Feeling slighted in a meeting by a colleague can bring on the same bodily response as a charging woolly mammoth once did. And because these feelings are uncomfortable, our tendency is to push them down, rather than allowing them to be there.
In counselling, I help clients to move from “how can I get rid of this anxiety” to “what is this reaction telling me? What is it a sign of?” Moving to greater acceptance of the 'mood music' in our internal world is no easy feet, and takes time. The act of going to counselling and sharing your inner thoughts and feelings is a great first step, and can bring a huge amount of alleviation in itself. I work with clients to help them accept and explore symptoms of anxiety, through questions, discussion and experiential exercises. It can seem very contradictory, but by 'befriending' those uncomfortable feelings, we can find greater comfort and ease in our lives. Here, readers may see some common ground with buddhist thinking, and the approach inherent in meditation. I like the approach advocated by Tara Brach, a US meditation teacher, called RAIN. This means to Recognise, Accept, Investigate and Nurture those uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
Part of the reason that anxiety is such a common symptom is that it is often a signal we receive to indicate that other things are happening and need our attention. For example, if there are things triggering anger in us and we don’t know how to express that anger, it can manifest in anxiety. Or if we have had feelings of sadness that we have ignored for a long time, they may have built up and built up until the growing need to make contact with them shows up in anxious feelings.
There are lots of ways of ‘managing’ anxiety, and lots of great articles that rightly encourage you to do so by exercising regularly, eating and sleeping well, drinking less alcohol, meditating, spending time with friends and family and by doing the creative and relaxing things that you most enjoy. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) approaches will also encourage you to identify the thinking pattern that underlies your anxious reaction. Often, examining our thinking patterns will identify thoughts of “I’m not good enough”, “I always get it wrong”, or “no one loves me/listens to me”.
These are all important things to do. But therapy can go a step further by helping you to move beyond managing your anxiety and into understanding it more fully, through examining yourself and where you are in your life. Listening to our anxiety and exploring it can bring surprising new insights. Longer-term therapy can be an incredibly enriching journey that may make you thankful to those initial anxious feelings for their invitation to do things differently.
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