In the UK, anxiety is one of the most common mental health disorders, with recent statistics stating that over 8 million people are experiencing an anxiety disorder at any one time (Mental Health UK, 2023). Anxiety is a future orientated state of mind, by definition,‘a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome’ (Oxford, 2023).
In certain situations, anxiety is a rational and necessary response to perceived threat. It’s our body's response system doing what it’s designed to do: to keep us safe (think avoiding that dark alley late at night or dodging the snarling dog across the street). However, the problem arises when this temporary feeling becomes more frequent, chronic and pervasive. It becomes most unbearable when it is our emotional setpoint and we become unable to return to a state of homeostasis (rest and relax mode). Anyone who suffers from chronic anxiety knows all too well of its lock-tight grip and the debilitating, detrimental effects it can have on our functioning and wellbeing. Anxiety can manifest in a vast array of symptoms: dizziness, tiredness, confusion, racing thoughts, self consciousness, paranoia, or in my own case, muscular aches and pains. I spent years thinking I almost permanently had the flu until I discovered I was highly and chronically anxious and my body was responding with inflammation.
Today’s modern world gives us a myriad of reasons to feel anxious (pandemics,global warming, cost of living crisis,can we trust any of the humans given the small task of running the country?!) Not to mention the fact that the worst horrors facing the planet are beamed out at us via the media 24/7. You have to sometimes ask, is it any wonder so many of us are gripped by fear?
Sometimes it might be best to turn off the tv, realise that we can’t solve all the problems of the world, and turn our attention to a nice game of scrabble.
I do have a hunch however, that most of us aren’t really anxious about polar bears going extinct or which politician has philandered this week. Although these things are disturbing, they’re too abstract and don’t bear any relation to our personal lives. I suspect that what really gnaws at us are the subtler, pervasive issues which affect how we feel about ourselves. The School of Life, in their book titled Anxiety, probe us to ask ourselves the question:
‘If I wasn’t consumed by this anxiety, what else would I have to think about right now?’
How therapy can help
Therapy provides a space in which a skilled and experienced therapist can help you explore what’s really driving your anxiety.
It might be that in our most vulnerable, formative years (when our little brains and nervous systems were literally forming) we didn’t receive the care and support that taught us that the world is generally a safe place, most people are ok, we’re ok, and we can handle life’s challenges without feeling too overwhelmed. If this wasn’t the case (which it wasn’t for a lot of us) we might need some help to reprogramme the wiring which is now holding us in an unhelping pattern of over-vigilance and helplessness.
My therapist helped me to uncover the negative automatic thoughts and beliefs which were driving my anxiety. I got to the heart of my fears and explored the experiences which created them. Talking therapy gave me great insight, and invited me to process difficult past experiences and feel my way through the accompanying emotions. I believe that ‘emotion’ is ‘energy in motion’. Emotions need to be moved through, in order to move on. I also learned to spot my negative automatic thoughts a lot quicker and to create space around them before acting. Without examination, our negative automatic thoughts can dictate our behaviour. For example, the unconscious thought might be ‘people are dangerous and out to hurt me’ and so we avoid people, or behave defensively. This thought comes from the cognitive distortion of generalisation. It might have been the case that in our past, someone, who was probably very important to us, did hurt us, leaving an imprint of the belief that people aren’t safe and will harm us. In reality, this is an overestimation of threat. When we stop and look more closely at our fears, we can question them from a more grounded, rational place and give ourselves space and choice in our responses.
There are a whole range of therapies available now which have been evidenced to successfully treat anxiety, but at the heart of it, a good therapist will help to empower their client, to help them untangle their thoughts, shine a light on beliefs about ourselves, process their pain and hopefully, instil in them a belief that ‘I’m ok, I’m not perfect, but I can handle this’.