Is anxiety the problem?
I am pretty willing to bet good money that never, in the history of mankind, has anyone calmed down as a result of being told to 'calm down'. A growing number of the people that come to see me seeking support are presenting with anxiety. Anxiety, in all its forms, is uncomfortable. Symptoms can be physical and chronic, and those experiencing them more-often-than-not want them gone. They are telling themselves (or asking me to tell them) to 'calm down', and making judgements about themselves for not being able to.
They are giving themselves yet another thing to be anxious about.
I am not really in the business of dismissing any emotion. I am of the belief that the only way to effectively 'turn off' anxiety would be to disconnect, which would lead to a depressive state and that is certainly not a desirable outcome. Of course, I am a therapist, so I would say this but, switching off emotions is never advisable. I am more keen to get to know anxiety (or sadness, anger, or fear, for that matter) and to understand the message it has for me. I feel that only then are we relieved of the symptoms that can be so awful to experience.
What is anxiety?
Clients describe anxiety in all kinds of ways. I hear about headaches, insomnia, upset stomachs, an inability to concentrate, irritability, fear. The best explanation I can think of is that anxiety is a physical or emotional discomfort caused by something that has not yet happened. I like to think of it as a sort of signal - a warning sign. I mean, let’s face it, anxiety plays a pretty important role in keeping us alive. It is what makes us look before we step out into the road. Anxiety is a feeling of sensation that something bad is going to happen. Anxiety is not the 'problem' - it is the 'something bad', or the belief in the 'something bad', that we should be taking issue with.
When anxiety takes its hold, perhaps start by noticing (and not judging) how you are feeling physically and emotionally. Anxiety can be a potent cocktail. You could be feeling angry, scared, or tired. For many, the physical manifestations are a tightening in the chest, the shoulders, or the jaw. It could be that your stomach hurts or your headaches. All of these things are not comfortable - they can be horrible, but they are all 'ok' responses to being worried about something. It is good to become really familiar with them though because the more able you are to spot anxiety, the quicker you will be to respond to it. Next, ask yourself "Why am I anxious?", then keep asking yourself "why?" until you feel you have identified the root cause. So let’s say:
- "I am anxious about my exam" - Why?
- "I think I am going to fail?" - Why?
- "Because it is too hard for me"
You see the 'problem' here is not that you are anxious, it is that you believe you are not capable of passing. Now, this may or may not be true, but this is the issue. Why would you not be anxious about sitting an exam you think you are going to fail? The work is not in dismissing the anxiety, but in challenging the belief you will fail, and if the belief comes out on top, it is in deciding what to do (perhaps seeking extra help?) about it and how you feel about that.
Perhaps the stakes are a little higher:
- "I am anxious to leave my home" - Why?
- "Because I feel afraid when I am out of the house" - Why?
- "Because I think someone will attack me"
If you believe you will be attacked, then, of course, you will be anxious. The belief you will be attacked is what needs exploring. Is this related to a past experience? How safe are you? What would make you feel safer?
Often, it is a little more complicated, and a few 'whys' will not uncover the issue. The support of a therapeutic relationship could be useful in uncovering the cause in these cases. For example, new parents often present with anxiety. They will tell me about worrying that their child is eating enough, sleeping enough, sick, going to be negatively impacted by their anxiety, etc. When, together, we drill right down with genuine curiosity and not judgement, we often find that the reason that anxiety is so overwhelming is that they feel solely responsible for their child, that they should be able to do it perfectly, and that they are not up to the job.
Now, give any person any job that they have to do by themselves, tell them it must be done perfectly, and anxiety is a pretty rational response. Add in the belief that they are not capable, and stress levels rise to a pretty high level. Anxiety is not the problem - the problem is the learnt understandings of what is required or expected of us, the belief we are not enough, and that the consequences of our actions or inactions are catastrophic. These are the issues I would invite you to explore.
It is OK to be worried. It is also OK to share and, sometimes, all it will take is a better understanding and a shift in perspective for the need for anxiety to dissipate.
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About Annabelle Hird
Annabelle Hird is a counsellor practising in the Richmond area. She is also the school counsellor for St Catherine's School in Twickenham
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