All of us are familiar with the heart-quickening nervous feeling of anxiety. We feel afraid, we may find it harder to breathe, and are worried something bad is about to happen. Anxiety is an evolutionary adaption to help us be on the lookout for threat or danger, yet for various reasons our anxiety can become overactive and cause problems in our lives.
Often, anxiety develops in children who grow up in unpredictable or frightening environments. When children are exposed to abuse or emotional neglect they feel it as a threat to their survival. This experience causes nervous system activation. When harsh, violent, or invalidating experiences are repeated throughout childhood, the child develops hypervigilance. They are always on the lookout for danger, real or imagined, and therefore frequently in a state of high anxiety.
Many people carry this state of hypervigilance and anxiety into adulthood. They often find themselves triggered into anxiety without knowing exactly why. For a while everything may seem fine, but a conflict at work or in a relationship can activate intense worry and fear. As a result, many people experience a fight, flight, or freeze response.
Additionally, many of us experience anxiety as a response to certain emotions. If we have been taught that our anger or sadness were unacceptable emotions in our families-of-origin, we will try to push them away and feel anxious when those feelings surface.
Fear is our response to an objective danger; anxiety is our response to a subjectively experienced threat: an inner impulse or feeling. Jon Frederickson
How Therapy Helps with Anxiety
Therapy helps with anxiety in a number of significant ways. First, I aim to create a safe environment in which all your experiences are welcome. Many clients find their anxiety decreases as they feel more comfortable sharing parts of themselves with me. Second, I help clients locate their anxiety in their bodies. Anxiety is a very physical experience – feeling it in our bodies allow us to learn more about it, tolerate it, and accept it. Third, we will begin to explore what triggers your anxiety. Is it a constant sense of danger? In that case, we will strive to differentiate between what has been learned and actual reality. Does the anxiety come from discomfort with feelings? In that case, I actively help clients become more comfortable with the full expression of all their emotions. Finally, one of the ways I see anxiety is as an adaptation to difficult life circumstances. It is an adaptation that persists after it is no longer needed. As we make space for your anxiety we will discover a whole host of feelings and parts of you that are under the surface. Befriending all these parts of you decreases anxiety and allows you to live a more full and meaningful life.