Anxiety is a broad term to describe feelings of worry, fear, nervousness or unease. For most people it is a perfectly normal response to new, unusual or daunting situations, and is self-limiting and often helpful in getting us through a stressful situation (think driving test or job interview). However, anxiety can become an on-going and life-limiting problem that can make the sufferer feel completely out of control.
Anxiety is very common
Around 25% of the population are likely to experience anxiety which is problematic and distressing for them. This could take the form of panic attacks, phobias, or a ‘generalised anxiety disorder’. Anxiety is often experienced as overwhelming and intrusive thoughts and concerns that can lead to avoiding certain situations, people or experiences, and often manifests as a range of unpleasant physical symptoms such as sweating, shaking and/or agitation, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, or light-headedness.
When anxiety becomes a long-standing problem it become detrimental to physical and emotional well-being, as it can lead to sleep disruption, social isolation, depression, and suicidal thoughts and feelings.
Sometimes there will be a clear reason, or trigger, for the feelings of anxiety, but in my experience the cause of the anxiety can be initially very difficult to understand or pinpoint. Often we can notice that there is a clear link between anxiety and a need for certainty or a need to be in control of a situation. When certainty or control are not possible then debilitating feelings of anxiety and panic can be experienced.
My approach to counselling anxiety
Over the many years that I have been practising I have found that a two-pronged approach to dealing with anxiety works best - by paying attention to managing the symptoms of anxiety and by paying attention to the underlying causes of the anxiety. In my experience approaching anxiety issues in this double-sided way leads to a more long-lasting solution than just dealing with the symptoms alone. We need to look at both the symptoms and the causes.
By exploring and practising ways of managing the distressing feelings of anxiety it can become easier to discuss the problem itself. Sometimes talking about anxiety can be very anxiety-provoking! It then becomes possible to explore the underlying reasons for the feelings of anxiety. For most people this can mean trying to understand the underlying emotional conflict that has given rise to the feelings of anxiety, for anxiety is essentially an outward sign-post that there is an emotional conflict being experienced, often unconsciously.
It will be different for each person, of course, but this might include exploring where the need for certainty and/or control has come from. Often anxiety can act like a ‘smokescreen’ that ‘hides’ other, more fundamental, feelings like anger or shame for example. When we safely utilise helpful ways to manage feelings, and understand the ways in which our feelings and experiences have resulted in debilitating anxiety, it becomes possible to resolve the past, find new emotional resources, and build a resilient and calmer future.