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Don't shoot the messenger: on disowning anxiety

In one of the episodes of that wonderful sitcom, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, the lead character remarks about one of his guests, 'He hates the fact that he hates his job'. It's certainly true that our secondary reactions to our feelings can cause as much and sometimes more distress than the primary feelings themselves.

Anxiety is indeed a case in point: few people would claim that they enjoy being anxious, as the physical sensations are uncomfortable, the cause of the distress is often obscure, and there is the worry how one is going to come across to others. Yet what is more distressing and in fact, more panic inducing is getting anxious about being anxious: when irrational panic ensues, one of its causes is that the sufferer has concluded, on some level, that not only that the anxiety is a sign of some danger, but the feeling itself is some malign, alien force that is dangerous.

I would like to examine a little this latter assumption and the profitability of construing anxiety as something almost harmful to the self. As I said, the reason why this can be unhelpful is that if anxiety itself seems threatening then that attitude can inspire a futile attempt to flee from the feelings and the inability to 'escape' them can lead to panic.

But there is a less obvious reason as to why trying to 'disown' your anxiety is a bad idea. Even though your anxiety is uncomfortable, it is part of your emotional repertoire and it contains valuable information about your relationship to others and to the world. Your anxiety won't always be rational and it won't always be reflective of realistic threats, but whatever may be the case, it embodies your response to circumstances at that time, and is therefore a 'message'. Basically, if you try and shoot the messenger, then it might 'shout' louder to get your attention, causing you to become more anxious.

So one way to assuage your anxiety is to treat it as a trusted, if sometimes misguided and overzealous, messenger, working on your behalf to pass on information that it considers vital to your welfare. If you listen to it and treat it as a carrier of information, then not only will you learn more about how you are responding to things and about any potential threats, you will also build a more constructive relationship with one of your more discomfiting feelings and be less likely to panic.

If you still feel that your anxiety is troubling you after you try and 'befriend' it, so to speak, then talking to a professional counsellor can help address more deep-seated issues.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Dr Alexander Fox (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))

I am a pluralistic counsellor in private practice in the city centre of Dundee. I am trained to help clients with a wide variety of problems and I am able to employ a number of different therapeutic approaches so that the therapy process is always tailored to the individual needs of each of my clients.… Read more

Written by Dr Alexander Fox (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))

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