A high proportion of the enquiries I get are from people whose lives are blighted by anxiety and panic. Its been like that for at least a year. In fact, when I checked with the online counselling directory, far and away the most used search term in 2015 has been “Anxiety” – the top request every month for the whole of 2015. So it seems worth updating and re-posting some of my advice about it.
Have you ever tried to define your anxiety to someone who doesn’t share it? Anxiety is both psychological and physical, its emotional and behavioural. Anxiety is the overwhelming feeling of fear, worry, dread, apprehension or panic that occur with the perception that something bad is going to happen. And in those moments, nothing else matters and very little can calm you back down. And there’s nothing worse than being told, however well meant, to calm down, there’s no need to panic. Try telling that to your unconscious! I always want to say, Oh good idea, calm down, I never thought of that!
Have you ever wondered why the fear builds so suddenly and overwhelmingly? Its because your body wants to protect you from a perceived threat, and your automatic fear response works so much faster than conscious thought. So by the time you can rationalise that a situation may be safe, its already too late – the anxiety has taken over. And when it takes over, for many people the overriding compulsion is that nothing on earth is more important than getting away from where you are at that moment. Again, this is your unconscious desire to protect yourself from the threat, and so you want to “take flight” to remove yourself from danger. Have you noticed too that when you do leave, or flee, after that you start to calm down?
This can often mislead people into thinking it’s a certain place or location that is triggering the anxiety. In fact, it is possible to experience an anxiety attack in seemingly random locations and times – they can be completely unconnected but what is the same is the emotion that the person is suddenly experiencing.
If left unresolved, anxiety can become severe, restricting quality of life, and can even develop into phobic behaviour. Its very common for people with anxiety to not want to take any medication; they just want the symptoms to go away. Many GPs will use a test such as the GAD 7 to diagnose anxiety, and then prescribe CBT sessions, but in some cases this can be as little as only 6 hours (its seems it’s a bit of a postcode lottery). In my view, that’s really not enough. Some people may get what they need from 6 hours, some people may need at least double that, one size does not fit all. CBT is recognised as a good tool for dealing with anxiety, and I can totally understand some people not wanting to get to the bottom of where it came from, they just want help to cope with the reality of it, and CBT is good for that as it is a problem solving tool used to change behaviour.
Anxiety is a natural reaction, like stress (see my earlier article about Stress, Anxiety & Habits). It comes from apprehension or fear of the unknown. Feeling anxious is a normal, healthy response. However, people develop anxiety disorders when they find it hard to control. Causes of anxiety are not always consciously recognised. Anxiety can also affect our everyday lives, as it has a negative effect on our emotions and behaviours. Anxiety can be mild, but when it’s severe it can cause panic attacks, or even severe phobic reactions. It produces physical symptoms including shaking, nausea, dizziness, headache & sweating, similar to the body’s “fight or flight” preparation.
We subconsciously produce fear or dread, designed to make us avoid a situation perceived as threatening, either emotionally or physically. But the subconscious does not assess or act upon degrees of feelings, only seeing black or white and no grey areas, and so does not produces a fear response to the corresponding degree. It simply produces fear to make us avoid the threat, and if it works, the next time it will recreate the same level of fear regardless of the level of threat. Sometimes therefore our anxiety can appear to others as an overreaction. We can often make anxiety worse for ourselves by embracing negative thoughts which only serve to increase feelings of fear in anticipation of the next “attack”. It becomes a negative cycle of fear, anxiety (many clients later describe feeling anxiety about having anxiety), catastrophic thoughts which always go straight to the worst case scenario, which creates panic and more anxiety, allowing negative perceptions of self, which allows fear to come back in, then anxiety, and so on……
It’s a self feeding cycle which can be hard to break, and which is usually already in motion before we realise it.
Whilst I can understand the desire of some people to just make it go away, I always try to be honest and explain that yes, we can make it much easier to cope with, and make these symptoms seem much less of a worry, but unless at some stage you understand where the anxiety came from, and deal with whatever that is, it may well come back. It may also manifest in a different way – so you get rid of one symptom, but then develop a new one as your subconscious continues to strive to protect you from the next “threat”.
There are many different therapy solutions on offer at the moment. CBT is a popular NHS choice, and the current other favourite is “Mindfulness”. These are both behaviour based tools. Mindfulness focuses on being completely in the present moment, training your thoughts away from past events.
I try to help clients who come to me with anxiety in several different ways – with coping tools for anxiety attacks, to understand the root cause of the fear so that we can eliminate it and also to think differently about their anxiety and what it means for them. I want them to feel empowered, that they can take back control of their life and not be overwhelmed by unexpected anxiety or panic when it does happen.
There are practical ways to help overcome symptoms of mild anxiety. You could try breathing exercises, which I really do recommend, thought challenges, to break the chain of Automatic Negatives Thoughts, and to prevent panic there are simple grounding techniques. Use whatever helps you to relax, calming music, herbal tea, essential oils, try aromatherapy massage – all these things are designed to help you physically relax (it is impossible to stay mentally anxious in a physically relaxed body). But I recognise that when you are at work, many of these things are not very accessible. If at work, or out and about, the breathing exercises can work really well.
There are also lots of people who want practical help with their anxiety, but who do not want to get into “therapy”. You can find some advice on the NHS website for tools to cope with anxiety.
For clients who really need to get to the bottom of their anxiety and overcome it once and for all, I recommend a combined course of hypnotherapy for relaxation and taking control of the symptoms and counselling to uncover the root cause. We do this over roughly 12 weeks; but nothing is set in stone and we move at the pace they are most comfortable with.
If you would like a consultation with Alison to discuss how to deal with your anxiety, please use the contact form or call today to make an appointment.