Feeling anxious? Read on!
A client arrived late for her appointment, cearly in an agitated state. She apologised and said that she had had to make a phone call to the bank prior to leaving her house. It was a routine call to transfer money, but before hand she had experienced a racing heart, had broken out into a sweat, and had spent over half an hour putting off the dreaded call. When she called the bank, her mouth was so dry she could hardly speak and her thoughts were confused.
A man I know has trouble socialising. When he plans a night out with friends he feels so anxious before hand that he may be sick. He has known these friends since University, and should feel comfortable with them. If he goes out, however, (and often he doesn’t) he spends the whole evening thinking that he is boring, that people don’t like him, and that they will laugh about him as soon as he has left.
Another client I had many years ago felt anxious all the time. She was constantly worrying that something awful was going to happen to her or her loved ones. Eventually she had a panic attack ‘out of the blue’ one evening on her way to the shop. At first she didn’t realise what was happening and feared that she was having a heart attack. She managed to get herself home and calm herself down by breathing deeply. Now, added to all her old fears was a new one: the fear of fear itslef. She monitored herself all the time for symptoms of an impending panic attack. She stopped doing lots of things that she enjoyed and her life began to shrink. She came to see me because she knew that if she didn’t do something this would be her life from now on, and she wanted more for herself.
We can all relate to those people, because we all experience anxiety from time to time. anxiety is a feeling that has a crucial part to play in our survival. It tells us that there is a danger of some sort threatening us, and it causes physical changes in our bodies that prepare us to fight that danger, or run away from it. Another response is to freeze, do nothing. Many animals do this, and it makes their predators think that they are already dead so they leave them alone. It may also make them less visible to their predarors. It’s easy to understand this ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mechanism in the context of being chased by a tiger, or suddenly being confronted by a person holding a knife, say. In these situations, our emotional brain hijacks the rational brain and gets us to act, and fast. There’s no time to reason with the person with the knife, and it would endanger us to do so. But what about telephoning the bank, going out with friends, or being anxious about unreal, hypothetical events? The same physical changes occur: we produce stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol that raise our heart rate, causing us to be short of breath, we feel as though we suddenly need the loo (this is because if we are lighter we can run faster) we get sweaty, feel dizzy. But the people in the stories were not in any danger, were they?
Danger isn’t just about physical survival, and in the modern world it comes in many forms. Every day we face threats, if not to our physical survival, then to our security and status. Your boss may criticise you; (threat to job, livelihood) your neighbour may have a party and not invite you; (fear of being cast out by the group) your partner may talk a little too much about a new person they have recently met; (fear of loss of an important attachment). Most of the time we can deal with these challenges and put them into perspective, or act on them appropriately. Occasionally though, the emotional hijacking I referred to earlier happens and we find ourselves feeling extremely anxious about things which rationally we may well know are not a major problem. This can happen when we have been under a lot of stress over a long period and we are getting overloaded. We may just need a holiday, or to talk to someone and start to see things more clearly. Therapy can help us to learn techniques to manage stress and anxiety , to look at things from a more resourceful point of view, or challenge the thoughts that are maintaining the anxiety. It can be useful to ask, for example, ’Is that eally true?’ ‘How do you know that?’ ‘What else could that mean?’ ‘Is that the only possible outcome’? ‘What makes you think you wouldn’t be able to cope if the worst DID happen?’
Sometimes, anxiety is a symptom of a deeper problem. If we are carrying unresloved emotional wounds from the past, things that happen in the present can re-stimulate the old pain and make us react in ways which seem out of proportion to what’s going on. This can be confusing for us and those who are close to us. If we suffered physical or emotional abuse or trauma as children, our sense of security was damaged and we may feel anxious even though the danger has passed. If this is the case with you, I urge you to seek the support of a skilled and empathic therapist, because it is possible to move on and live more happily in the present. Then your past can be a source of learning and insight rather than pain and anxiety. You can then live your life with curiosity and confidence.
As a final thought, I would like to say that life is challenging and confusing for all of us. Even if we are materially comfortable, human beings ask big questions about life and its meaning which are perhaps impossible to answer. It’s normal to feel scared and anxious sometimes. We all do.
Contact Fiona Hannant. Hypnotherapy, Psychotherapy, EMDR.
Landline: 0114 268 5055
Mobile : 07957 713 102