The encroaching nature of anxiety
When I work with clients who have anxiety, I usually find that they have picked up coping strategies that may have been useful when they were younger, but they are not useful now and in fact, they have become a hindrance to the enjoyment of their life. These coping strategies have become to ‘go-to strategy’ to cope with emotional injuries or harms that have taken place earlier in their lives.
So things like ruminations, (which are the brain’s way of repeatedly trying to ‘digest’ and move beyond something that was emotionally disturbing and traumatic), are just one example of a coping mechanism that does not work now for clients. We know that ruminations really make matters worse and strengthen the very thoughts that are causing the emotional disturbance in the first place. They are ultimately, a very poor counter-productive mechanism in trying to resolve fears and emotional distress caused by things such as intrusive thoughts.
Another coping strategy is re-assurance-seeking behaviour. This is simply a ‘stop-gap’ that reduces anxiety for a short period and also re-enforces and embeds in the anxiety over time if the reassurance-seeking behaviour is not worked upon and reduced. So, learning to live without certainty and being able to ‘move beyond’ the disturbing thought or emotion that feels catastrophic is part of the healing process.
It is essentially about developing the self that may have felt unable to cope when a young child so that now it can cope with and ultimately be resilient to, the trials and tribulations of life. It is also interesting to note that the underlying core beliefs that are associated with anxiety include perceptions such as, ‘I am not good enough’ and ‘I am weak’, or ‘the world is a dangerous place’.
A further limiting cognitive and behavioural set of responses within those who have anxiety is the slow and painful journey into trying to reduce more and more risk to themselves. Let me explain. What may start as a fear of travelling on a bus or the London Underground, will start to widen as time goes on and if the phobias are left unchallenged and untreated. It may spread to thoughts and ruminations about being in other enclosed spaces, lifts, planes, coaches and ultimately, into any space that simply feels limiting. This is how anxiety and phobias develop large root and branch networks into daily activities that people need to undertake in their lives to have a productive, meaningful and fruitful life.
The longer the anxiety and the cognitions and ‘safety behaviours’ continue, the smaller and smaller the daily world space becomes for someone with anxiety. This negative feedback cycle will keep reinforcing itself until an individual cannot cope with the limitations that they have placed on themselves. They may also end up housebound and in the worst circumstances, living out their lives within the tiny confines of their rooms. Allied with this will be significant drops in mood, which is understandable given that their life will have become more and more constricted.
The longer anxiety conditions such as agoraphobia, panic attacks, and other phobias remain in the lives of people, the more complex they become and the more they interact with virtually every part of the daily activities which someone undertakes. This is why it is important to start that healing journey as soon as possible. It really is never too late to reclaim and regain your life, your right to an enjoyable life and one that has meaning for you.