Anxiety isn't new!
I have been working very closely with my clients recently on their anxiety and looking at potential root causes. It got me thinking more broadly on how anxiety isn’t just a modern day problem and that it’s been around for years, thousands of years since time immemorial.
So where does my anxiety come from?
Anxiety is basically the body’s response to stress that derives from the limbic system. The limbic system is responsible for the control of danger, perceived threats, emotions and anxiety.
The limbic structures of the brain process incoming stimuli and regulate our emotional responses to them. It will either go into fight, flight, freeze or fawn modes, known in today's psychology as the trauma response. It is predominantly a fear of something that might happen, or is about to happen, something that we usually have no control of anyway!
Two hormones, adrenaline and cortisol (the primary stress hormone), are pumped through the central nervous system leaving the recipient feeling highly charged and hyper-vigilant, waiting for the threat or danger to pass.
I often refer to this stage with my clients as like a meerkat, standing upright on its hind legs looking and scanning the area for any potential threats and dangers.
Another visual way of describing anxiety to my clients is by imagining themselves back in Neanderthal times being faced by a menacing sabre tooth tiger – do you run, fight, flee or freeze or fawn?
Back in those days the stress response, although immediate, was fleeting and dealt with relatively promptly one way or another. The body could return back to homeostasis and the anxiety would be abated.
Decades ago however we didn’t have all the accoutrements of today’s world having to juggle invisible balls, or spin never ending lines of plates just to thrive to strive in today’s society.
The higher the expectations we put on ourselves, the more unrealistic and unattainable they potentially become! This could cause no amount of stress and anxiety for the individual. concerned. Hence why clients may feel their life is spiralling out of control and seeking counselling. Control can be described quite simply as a reaction to losing control.
Is anxiety new to counselling?
Anxiety is not new from a counselling perspective either. The Great fore fathers of psychology such as Freud with his psychoanalytic theory, Maslow with his theory of human motivation (more widely known as the hierarchy of needs), Erickson with his psycho-social theory, we’ve been writing about anxiety as far back as the 1800s!
Freud (love him or hate him) actually discovered three different types of anxiety:
- Moral anxiety: A fear of deconstructing our own moral codes and principles.
- Neurotic anxiety: The unconscious worry that we will lose control of our urges and impulsivity resulting in punishment for inappropriate behaviour.
- Reality anxiety: A fear of life in real time, something like 'how could I possibly go outside whilst there is a life threatening pandemic out there!'.
Freud believed that all behaviour had an underlying root cause, and these causes sit at the very back of the inaccessible, unattainable part of the unconscious mind.
The unconscious mind can be depicted as a large storage vessel that holds repressed memories, emotions, fears, desires, fantasies, introjects, and dreams. Because they are repressed and inaccessible they are not in our conscious mind or, as a Gestalt therapist, I like to use the term 'out of our awareness'!I rather like this quote by psychologist Asleigh Warner:
Behind every behaviour is a feeling. And beneath every feeling is a need. And when we meet the need rather than focus on the behaviour we begin to deal with the cause and not the symptom.
So how can counselling help me and my anxiety?
So anxiety is not new, and it will not be new to the client either. As a counsellor I gently 'unpack' with my clients the very first time they recalled feeling anxious. I believe this is where it sits for them. All those trapped memories and repressed emotions or somatic sensations are basically how the body/brain and senses perceived the initial threat or danger.
We can’t erase the past, but if we find the root cause or potential triggers we can start to understand our anxiety rather than be afraid of it.
In my practice we face it together and find ways to lessen the threat level they once perceived it as. I often say no child is born anxious, it is what they may have seen, or been exposed to, or witnessed in their crucial developmental years.
As a Gestalt counsellor I work in the here-and-now, working creatively with art, colour, mood cards, white boards and other creative mediums. I facilitate their journey by asking them to capture their thoughts and emotions as they come in rather than trying to suppress them and make them unattainable.
Working this way is very organic as it helps unlock the past in a gentle, safe and contained way.
Awareness = Choice = Change
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