Understanding anxiety through gestalt therapy
Anxiety is great. It's an immediately impactful alert system that tells us something is wrong. Just like fire alarms alert us to a potentially serious threat to our safety. You locate the source of the smoke and, after a while, the fire alarm stops. Same with anxiety; locate the source of danger, deal with it, and wait for the alarm to stop.
...but wait, what if you can't find the source of the threat that's set off the alarm? What if your anxiety is more like the time my neighbour's burglar alarm went off while they were away for the weekend and you have to listen to it drilling a hole in your brain for nearly three whole days?
Well, that's generally the kind of anxiety that's bringing you into therapy. A sense of dread, of background threat, possibly swelling into a full-blown sense of impending doom, but no obvious reason to feel that way. It's as if your own body is gaslighting you.
I understand anxiety to be an early warning system for when our excitement exceeds our available support in a situation in which failure represents a significant threat. What does that mean? It means that if I try to do something I don't feel confident I can do, I will understandably feel tentative or nervous about it. But if failing to do what I'm trying to do poses a significant risk to me, then I am in danger.
As a Gestalt therapist, I'm interested in how you experience anxiety and how it functions in your life. It can be useful to feel around for which situations provoke more anxiety and which situations ease it off. It can also be useful to investigate the history of your experience of anxiety. Can you remember a time when you didn't feel this anxiety? Is there an obvious point at which it became a problem, or has it always been there, growing until it reached a tipping point? Try plotting your history with anxiety on a timeline running from birth to now to see if that tells you something.
When it comes to anxiety, I find that asking why questions isn't much use. I recommend switching to how questions, and describing, in as much detail as possible, how and when you experience anxiety, and what you do to ease it. In many ways, the "cure" for anxiety is to *be* anxious, to allow yourself to really *feel* the sense of threat so that it can resolve into something tangible that can be contended more directly. However silly, however embarrassing what emerges might seem to you at a rational level.
Anxiety is not just an individual experience but also a product of your interactions with your wider life space. The life space is a concept that includes everything that is influencing your life at any given moment - your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, as well as your relationships, social roles, cultural norms, and even the wider socio-political context.
In Gestalt therapy, we understand that all these elements are interconnected and mutually influencing. Anxiety, therefore, is not just ‘in’ you, but ‘between’ you and your life space. It arises when the balance between you and your experience of your life space is disturbed when your capacity to adjust and adapt to changes in your life space is overwhelmed.
This perspective allows us to approach anxiety not as an isolated symptom to be eliminated, but as a meaningful signal about the state of our lifespace. Anxiety in this context becomes a disturbance in the force. It invites us to explore not just the anxiety itself, but the wider situational conditions that are giving rise to it. It encourages us to ask: What aspects of my situation are triggering this anxiety? What changes in the situation could help alleviate it? How can I mobilise the resources available in my life space to support me in dealing with this anxiety?
Working with anxiety from this perspective is not just about managing symptoms, but about enhancing your overall situational awareness and your capacity to navigate your life space more effectively. It’s about learning to listen to your anxiety, to respect it as a valuable source of information about your situation, and to respond to it in ways that promote greater health and balance. Not just within yourself but within the unique web of relationships that hold your life space together.
If you’re struggling with anxiety and would like to explore this approach further, I invite you to reach out to me. Together, we can work to understand the unique conditions of your life space, identify the changes that could support you in managing your anxiety, and develop the skills and resources you need to navigate your situation more effectively.