What if anxiety is not always just a symptom to be treated, but a 'health-seeking signal' inviting us to reconnect with the truest parts of ourselves that have been neglected or repressed?
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Is Your Anxiety Trying To Tell You Something Important?
What if anxiety is not always just a symptom to be treated, but a 'health-seeking signal' inviting us to reconnect with the truest parts of ourselves that have been neglected or repressed? Below is a recent example from my work as a licensed Psychotherapist illustrating how anxiety at times acts as an important messenger inviting us to heal psycho-emotional wounds sustained in childhood and adolescence, if only we are able and willing to tune in and listen.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is commonly believed to be an automatic, 'built-in' response to perceived threats, and is often referred to as our 'fight-or-flight arousal', or 'fight or flight response' as a species. Therefore, it stands to reason that children who grew up in chaotic, possibly traumatic home environments where their fight or flight (arousal) response was frequently activated are susceptible to developing various kinds of anxiety disorders even prior to the onset of adulthood. Hence, it is a concern that physicians and psychiatrists whose patients report anxiety that is interfering with their daily functioning and quality of life typically prescribe anti-anxiety medication, but do not always recommend that their patient also consider seeing a qualified Mental Health professional so as to explore the possible root cause(s) of the anxiety, such as early childhood trauma that has been unknowingly repressed (the focus of this article), as well as identify possible additional or alternative (i.e., non-prescription) treatments.
Signs And Symptoms Of Anxiety
Although anxiety can take on many forms, the below are signs and symptoms commonly associated with this behavioral health disorder:
- Excessive Worry
- Sleep Disturbance
- Poor Concentration
- Muscle Tension
Psychotherapy As A Means Of Successfully Treating Chronic Anxiety
What if anxiety was not always something to be avoided and/or medicated away, but was instead something it would benefit us to be curious about? One way that I invite my clients to explore this possibility is to ask them to tune into their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations the next time they notice they are feeling anxious. What is happening right then in the moment? Was there a possible 'trigger' initiating the anxiety? As the following Case Study illustrates, this simple exercise alone can provide invaluable information regarding what anxiety 'signals' might be trying to convey.
A Case Study Addressing Anxiety
I once had a client (whom I will call 'Jeremy' — not his actual name) share with me in session that he had recently felt extreme anxiety when he entered a hotel lobby on a business trip. He attributed this to what he thought was the 'Generalized Anxiety Disorder' (GAD) he had been diagnosed with by a psychiatrist years before, prior to beginning his psychotherapeutic work with me. I suggested early on in therapy that he begin keeping an 'Awareness Journal' and to write in this journal whenever he experienced particularly strong symptoms of anxiety. During one such onset of extreme symptoms that occurred during a business trip, Jeremy realized while writing in his journal that he had begun experiencing anxiety symptoms when he saw a certain type of old-fashioned couch in the hotel lobby he had just walked into. Upon further reflection in his Awareness Journal, Jeremy suddenly realized that the retro-style couch looked nearly identical in style and in color to a couch that was in the living room of the home he had lived in as a child. Needless to say, this gave us much to explore in this and future sessions as he began to remember and share traumatic events from childhood that up until then he had unknowingly repressed.
Over time, the chronic, 'generalized' anxiety Jeremy had been suffering from for years receded as he continued to work diligently in psychotherapy to reconnect with the wounded, 'lost' parts of himself he had disconnected from during childhood while growing up in a chaotic, unpredictable, alcoholic family system. He eventually chose to stop taking his anti-anxiety medication under the supervision of a physician and is able to self-manage his anxiety symptoms via deep breathing exercises and Mindfulness Meditation practices he learned during therapy, along with Somatic-Psychology techniques (for more information on the use and efficacy of Somatic-Psychology in the treatment and healing of trauma refer toBessel van der Kolk's book The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma). Jeremy also continues to self-reflect in his Awareness Journal, which has become a critical aspect of his ongoing psycho-emotional healing and growth. (Note: Details of specific client cases have been changed to protect privacy).
Loss of Connection With Self and Others: Anxiety And Self-Medication
For those individuals like 'Jeremy' (refer to above Case Study) who experienced turbulent childhoods as a result of growing up in a dysfunctional and/or traumatized family system, the experience of anxiety can begin in early childhood, although it is often not noticed by primary caregivers, teachers, the family physician, or others who might be able to appropriately intervene. Children, teens and young adults with undiagnosed anxiety may begin to 'self-medicate' with substances such as food, drugs, or alcohol and activities such as excessive TV watching and video gaming in an unconscious attempt to quiet the discomfort of anxiety symptoms without even realizing that they are seeking some kind of temporary or permanent relief.
Adults who did not experience anxiety when younger may develop anxiety without being consciously aware of it, and they, too, may begin self-medicating with substances. Having worked in several drug and alcohol treatment centers, I can say with certainty that unrecognized, undiagnosed, and untreated anxiety was often fueling the process of addiction, meaning, the addict began using substances initially to escape a sense of internal discomfort that was not recognized as anxiety at the time. In short, a fundamental experience of disconnection from self and others along with unrecognized anxiety symptoms were identified by nearly every drug and alcohol addicted client I have worked with as being at the root of his or her addictive patterns and behaviors.
Anxiety and Psychotropic Medication
While taking anti-anxiety medication to minimize anxiety symptoms is a personal choice, and in some cases is medically advisable, there are other effective interventions that a person suffering from anxiety can pursue, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy; keeping an Awareness Journal as part of ongoing Psychotherapeutic-based Intrapsychic / Family Systems work (as discussed in the above Case Study); engaging in deep breathing exercises; yoga; daily physical exercise; and homeopathic remedies as prescribed by a Naturopathic doctor.
Recent research also confirms that Mindfulness Meditation can be highly effective in addressing anxiety symptoms. Mindfulness is a practice that involves being fully engaged in whatever is going on around you. "It is simply the act of paying attention to whatever you are experiencing, as you experience it", explains Kate Hanley, author of A Year of Daily Calm: A Guided Journal for Creating Tranquility Every Day. "By choosing to turn your attention away from the everyday chatter of the mind and on to what your body is doing, you give the mind just enough to focus on that it can quiet down." In 2013 researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center published a study that confirmed that Mindfulness Meditation reduces anxiety at a neural level.
Working Mindfully With Anxiety
As the above brief discussion illustrates, there may be far more to anxiety than meets the eye. While it is understandable why anyone experiencing anxiety would want relief from these extremely uncomfortable symptoms, it may be that the symptoms themselves are pointing to possible solutions to those who are willing to explore their anxiety via mindfully cultivating an attitude of acceptance, curiosity, and patience. Journaling, painting, and other forms of creative expression, as well as psychotherapy and/or sharing in a support group, may offer a means of discovering the wisdom that anxiety has to offer.
A special note of caution: It is recommended that a person experiencing frequent anxiety symptoms get a complete physical to rule out disorders like Graves (Thyroid) Disease, and other medical conditions that can cause extreme and/or chronic anxiety symptoms.
Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA, MACP, MFT, is a licensed Psychotherapist; Transformational Guidance Expert; award-winning Author; Educator; and Guest Expert Speaker on the topic(s) of Transformational Living and Leadership. In 2016 she established her new Transformational Life Coaching practice, ChainFree Living Transformational Life Coaching & Guidance Services as well as the ChainFree Living International Online Discussion Group & Community Forum, assisting individuals and organizations nationwide and internationally in their personal and professional development and growth. Her unique and very effective Transformational Life Coaching and Guidance methods and the free online peer-support Community Forum she offers via her ChainFree Living website are designed to assist individuals in consciously reconnecting with their true self in support of emotionally honest, authentic, embodied living.
Rebecca is currently authoring a book, ChainFree Living: How To Break Free From The Chains Of Your Past And Step Into An Awakened NOW, which she anticipates being published in 2017.