On 23rd September 2023 I was in London for the BACP Private Practice Conference to engage with the topic of anxiety. The most inspiring point of the day for me was hearing Emmy van Deurzen speak about an existential approach to anxiety. Emmy is a very experienced existential psychotherapist, author, lecturer and activist now in her 70s with many published books and a long career behind her, so I was definitely ready to hear her wisdom on this subject.
She began by validating the current higher prevalence of anxiety as a normal and natural response to the difficulties we are facing as humans at this time in history. When you consider the changes and challenges we have faced over the past few years (the pandemic, Brexit, climate change, the cost of living crisis etc) it would be surprising if we were NOT anxious!
Anxiety is a normal part of human experience and to some extent we need it in order to survive and to motivate ourselves. Although anxiety can feel very unpleasant if we are able to reframe our view of it and see it as energy needing somewhere to go, we can learn to direct this energy towards positive action. Emmy spoke about the human tendency to avoid and suppress our emotions, particularly the uncomfortable ones, however this means we are ignoring important messages from our body and missing out on what it means to be human. She advocates opening up to our emotions to experience and learn from them.
When I see clients who are feeling anxious they are often desperate to get rid of the anxiety. My approach is to help them to stay with the feeling for a little longer, to learn not to be afraid of it. In my experience fighting against anxiety is counter productive. It’s far more effective in the long term to find ways to accept and make room for the physical feelings you are experiencing. Over time you will no longer be afraid of feeling anxious and this will help break the cycle of anxiety.
Emmy suggests if you are feeling anxious perhaps this is a sign that there is a new challenge for you to take on – can you see this as energy rising to prepare you for a new challenge, leading you to anticipate and feel excited about something new? This fits with my own sense that there is a fine line between anxiety and excitement. This has helped some of my clients to reframe their anxiety in a positive way, to interpret it differently as something potentially useful.
While many approaches to working with anxiety focus on the individual and their physical, mental and emotional responses, existential therapy takes a broader perspective, drawing on philosophical ideas about the meaning of human existence and the art of living. This was a different way of looking at things for me and I found it refreshing and encouraging.
For example, reminding ourselves that we are only one very small part of the wider universe, noticing the parallels between human beings and the universe (there are billions of stars out there and billions of brain cells inside us), reminding ourselves some things are reliably constant in life (such as gravity which keeps us safe – stops us falling off the ground!) and facing up to other realities of life which are hard to bear but need to be eventually confronted (the inevitability of change and death) can help to shift our anxiety. When we face our anxiety we discover a potential for courage and strength within ourselves.
If you’d like to hear Emmy van Deurzen speaking about anxiety this is a good short video and I think she will be posting her presentation from the BACP conference on her youtube page soon.
“Fear not. It is only anxiety you are feeling: a good sign you are alive and well. Live it.” Emmy van Deurzen