Right now, ours is a very unpredictable world. It feels like lots of change is happening, much of it outside our control and we have no idea where this runaway train we are clinging to is taking us. Who is in charge? Where are we going? What does my future look like? How is my life going to change? And as a people, we don’t do change very well. But it’s true that uncertainty is an absolute part of the human life cycle. There are some things we just do not know – from what the weather will be like this time next week to who is running the world and everything in between. And there are some things we cannot know, and yet the cycle of life goes on every day anyway.
For the most part, healthy people are able to cope with a degree of uncertainty. But some of us don’t cope with not knowing and may feel overwhelmed by everyday life; for these people every day becomes a struggle as they try to get control over their lives. This very human need for control is a common factor in conditions that involve anxiety, obsessive disorders and depression. Trying to get rid of doubts and create a sense of certainty is emotionally unhealthy, and is usually futile.
By the time people get to the stage of looking for help, the problem is already overwhelming them. It will also have created in them negative behaviour patterns such as avoidance and procrastination, or being risk averse. Caught in a vicious circle, fuelled by fear of uncertainty, they can also become chronic worriers. People can develop obsessive behaviours as they try to feel a sense of control over any part, however small, of their lives. The fear can be paralysing, keeping them stuck in a place they don’t want to be, afraid to make any changes and net even sure what those changes should be.
The key to emotional stability for people with anxiety issues like these is to learn acceptance of the fact that doubt and uncertainty exist everywhere. It cannot be eliminated, only tolerated. We don’t need to change the world to feel secure in it – we just need to accept what our very small part in it looks like and get on with being in it.
When anxious clients come to me, they want help with issues that are affecting their lives right now; they want to be rid of the worry and fear that is overwhelming them and change their lives for the better. We start by working out what “better” means for each client and what they want for the future. Then we can set about the process of helping them, as gently as possible to acquire the self-awareness to make that happen. This will sometimes involve exploration of past experiences in order to understand and place the client’s present into context, but this will not suit every client or every situation, I never force anyone to look at any part of their lives or their history they are not comfortable with. Nobody needs to make you do anything until you are ready to do it.
For some clients the future simply means being able to reach acceptance or make peace with a situation they cannot alter, such as the pain of bereavement, or suffering through ill health. For others, it’s about learning to change their emotional response to triggers from their past – from an abusive relationship perhaps. There are clients who allow their negative thoughts to control their decision making processes, and sometimes they avoid something they actually really want, in case it doesn’t work out. For these clients, their worry is getting in the way of them living their lives.
What if?” questions are common in people who are anxious or worriers. Whilst some degree of caution is a healthy normal response, when it affects the quality of life decisions, an intervention or change of behaviour can be appropriate. For some clients the future is about achieving goals, and whatever their particular issues, as their sense of the future develops, they will begin to realise they have potential. This in itself can be a scary time for the client, as the future seems new and uncertain.
A good therapist can help clients to re-program their thoughts and learn to accept that some things about life in the present and especially life in the future are beyond their control. Just because we cannot predict our life path does not mean it should be feared and clients can learn to accept the unpredictability of their life. I try to help clients to feel safe and give them tools to help them cope in this ever changing world.