What is anxiety and how can therapy help?

Anxiety is an emotion which is classified by an unpleasant inner state of turmoil and includes a range of feelings. These feelings can range from mild, such as worry, through to more severe emotions such as overwhelming fear. Anxiety is a natural human response when we feel that we are under threat, and it can be experienced through our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.


A common myth about anxiety

A popular belief within society today is that anxiety is an out-of-date physiological system designed to protect us purely from animal attacks and violence from other humans. According to neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, this is a narrow view of anxiety that does not represent the full picture.

You will often hear we suffer anxiety due to modern phenomena such as mobile phones, social media, and a constant stream of negative news. YouTube will throw up videos sharing wisdom about our misplaced anxiety owing to boredom as we have all our basic needs met such as food, warmth, and shelter.

However, as Andrew states, as far back as medieval times, we know humans have experienced what we call psychosocial stress around the loss of loved ones, famine, cold and disease. The idea that worry is a modern-day phenomenon is incorrect.

The nervous system

When it comes to anxiety, the nervous system responds with one of two functions. The sympathetic nervous system is when the body and organs are flooded with energy to make us move in response to a threat. The second type is the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the body during rest and digestion or perceived safety. How well we deal with stress directly impacts how well we function emotionally.

Emotions by their very nature are irrational. Working with a therapist, you begin to understand your own personal emotional response to stress and understand when your worries are appropriate, a result of trauma or you have become worrisome around relatively harmless situations.

Smoke alarm analogy

Anxiety is like an inbuilt alarm. Just like your smoke alarm at home, sometimes the alarm is false or sounds due to burnt toast rather than an actual fire or real threat. Worrisome thoughts around an everyday false alarm can lead to feelings of anxiety just as the feeling of anxiety may be the spark that leads to worrisome thoughts. This leads to a vicious cycle where they both feed each other, causing both the physical characteristics and the mental components to increase in tandem.

How can therapy help?

Working with a therapist, one of the first steps will be to understand what triggers these thoughts and feelings. Once you have awareness of this, you will learn to examine what you can control and what you cannot. 

We are able to change our thoughts directly, but we do not have the same control over our emotions. Together, you can work towards the goal of feeling calm and less anxious by focusing on what you are thinking or doing.

Anxiety takes many forms and covers multiple areas. When anxiety becomes problematic, taking the time to work with a professional over a period of months, you can look into the underlying causes such as emotional pain (trauma, rejection), problematic self-treatment (worry, self-criticism), behavioural avoidance (avoidance of conflict, events, places) and unmet needs (to be acknowledged, to be protected).

For people prone to anxiety, they tend to use worry to cope with stress. Working with a therapist for a period of time, you can identify your less resilient responses and learn more useful ways of approaching these challenges. Armed with the knowledge of how we deal with emotional dysregulation, it becomes more of a choice to have our nervous system sit at rest and digest as opposed to being hypervigilant when it's not appropriate.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Basingstoke RG24 & RG21
Written by Nathan Hipple, (MBACP) Dip. Couns
Basingstoke RG24 & RG21

I am an integrative therapist after working 8 years across various mental health positions within the homeless sector and NHS.

During those years I gained extensive experience of working with anxiety, depression addiction and stress. I believe through a trusting relationship healing can begin.

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