Working Mindfully With Anxiety: Anxiety Symptoms As Health-Seeking Signals – Part One

Rebecca C Mandeville, MA

Rebecca C Mandeville, MA

Therapeutic Life Coach and Organizational Consultant at ChainFree Living Coaching and Consulting Services
Rebecca C. Mandeville is a licensed psychotherapist, therapeutic life coach, educator, and author specializing in emotional healing and living authentically as one's true self. She is the founder of ChainFree Living (http://chainfreeliving.com), an online hub offering free resources and community peer-support to people who wish to consciously experience their innate wholeness. Her book, 'You Are Already Whole: On Discovering and Being Your True Self', will be published in 2017.
Rebecca C Mandeville, MA

What Those Anxious Feelings May Be Trying To Tell You – And Why It’s Important To Listen (Part One of a Two Part Series)

What if anxiety is more than a clinical disorder to be treated, but serves as a barometer of our overall mental and emotional well being? This article focuses on anxiety as a ‘health-seeking signal’ inviting us to reconnect with the truest parts of ourselves that have been neglected or repressed. Included 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.

-Article by Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA, MFT

What Is Anxiety?

Clinical signs of anxiety
Clinical signs of 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 feeling anxious typically prescribe anti-anxiety medication but do not always recommend that their patient also see a qualified Mental Health professional to explore the possible root cause(s) of the anxiety as well as to 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 and Rumination
  • Irritability / Anger
  • Sleep Disturbance / Insomnia
  • Poor Concentration / Forgetfulness
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle Tension / Mysterious Aches and Pains
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Blood Pressure Spikes
  • Increased Heart Rate
  • Heart Palpitations / Chest Pain / ‘Panic Attacks’

Psychotherapy As A Means Of Successfully Treating Anxiety Disorders

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 anxious sensations? As the following Case Study illustrates, this simple exercise can provide surprising insights regarding what a person’s anxiety ‘signals’ might be trying to convey.

The Wisdom Of Anxiety: A Case Study

Journaling when anxious can be helpful
Journalling when anxious can be helpful

I once had a client (whom I will call ‘Jeremy – not his actual name) share with me in session that he had recently felt extremely anxious 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 his family doctor 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 was feeling particularly anxious. During one such onset of extreme symptoms that occurred during a business trip, Jeremy realized while writing in his journal that he had started to feel anxious 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 unknowingly 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 any anxious sensations that arise via deep breathing exercises and Mindfulness Meditation practices I introduced him to in 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 to Bessel 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).

Anxiety and Psychotropic Medication

lossy-page1-303px-Prescription_medication_being_dispensed.tiffWhile taking psychotropic medication to minimize symptoms is a personal choice, and in some cases is medically advisable, there are other effective interventions that a person can pursue, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy; Family Systems work (as discussed in the above case study); deep breathing exercises; yoga; daily physical exercise; holistic / body-oriented therapies (such as Hakomi Therapy and The Feldenkrais Method); Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction; accupuncture; massage; medical cannabis (now supported by research); 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. Journalling, 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, hormonal imbalances, and other medical conditions that can cause extreme and/or chronic anxiety.

Read Part Two to learn more about Anxiety, Addiction, Self-Medication, and Mindfulness Meditation and also access free resources:

http://chainfreeliving.com/2016/06/08/working-mindfully-anxiety-part-two/

Take my free brief quiz, ‘Are You Living As Your True Self?’ (hiding our real selves behind a mask can also cause us to feel anxious).

Was It ‘Sub-Par Parenting’ Or Were You A Victim Of Mental / Emotional Child Abuse?

Rebecca C Mandeville, MA

Rebecca C Mandeville, MA

Therapeutic Life Coach and Organizational Consultant at ChainFree Living Coaching and Consulting Services
Rebecca C. Mandeville is a licensed psychotherapist, therapeutic life coach, educator, and author specializing in emotional healing and living authentically as one's true self. She is the founder of ChainFree Living (http://chainfreeliving.com), an online hub offering free resources and community peer-support to people who wish to consciously experience their innate wholeness. Her book, 'You Are Already Whole: On Discovering and Being Your True Self', will be published in 2017.
Rebecca C Mandeville, MA

An Abuse Of Power

Author’s Note: If you are waking up to the fact that you may have been the victim of emotional / mental abuse as a child, please know that healing is possible. In addition to the below article, I encourage you to read my article on reclaiming the true self ‘lost’ in childhood (link here: http://chainfreeliving.com/2016/04/16/reclaim-true-self/), where I share my ten strategies for stepping into your innate wholeness and living and speaking your truth without fear. You may also join our forums where you will find free resources and online facilitated peer support at http://forums.chainfreeliving.com. You might also like to visit the website ‘The Invisible Scar‘ to discover more helpful articles focused on understanding, and healing from, parental emotional / mental abuse. Feel free to contact me directly as well. 

– Rebecca

Ever wonder if you were were the victim of actual psychological / emotional abuse versus ‘sub-par parenting’ as a child? Many people have no idea that they grew up in abusive, ‘toxic’, and/or dysfunctional environments, even after months or even years of psychotherapy. Some therapists miss the signs as well….  (Article By Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA, ChainFree Living, http://chainfreeliving.com)

According to Andrew Vachss, an attorney and author who has devoted his life to protecting children, the mental/emotional abuse of a child is “both the most pervasive and the least understood form of child maltreatment. Its victims are often dismissed simply because their wounds are not visible… The pain and torment of those who experienced “only” emotional abuse is often trivialized. We understand and accept that victims of physical or sexual abuse need both time and specialized treatment to heal, but when it comes to emotional abuse, we are more likely to believe the victims will “just get over it” when they become adults. This assumption is dangerously wrong. Emotional abuse scars the heart and damages the soul. Like cancer, it does its most deadly work internally. And, like cancer, it can metastasize if untreated” (You Carry The Cure In Your Own Heart, A. Vachss).

The Hidden Wounds of Psychological / Emotional Abuse.

Many adults grew up in environments that did not support their authentic true self nature. They may have been victims of abuse, existing in a near-constant state of terror as they struggled on a daily basis just to survive and be who they thought they needed to be in order to have their basic needs met. They may have grown up in an alcoholic family system, where fear and uncertainty was experienced on a daily basis, making it difficult to trust the very people who were supposed to care for them and keep them safe. Others may have had a parent with one or more undiagnosed or diagnosed mental illness disorder(s), (such as Schizophrenia or a Bipolar Disorder with or without psychotic features), or a disorder that caused extreme emotional instability, (such as Narcissistic, Histrionic, or Borderline Personality Disorder), causing them to be parented by adults who were still emotionally children themselves.

In such chaotic, non-nurturing environments that failed to lovingly and positively mirror the developing self, such children may have gradually disconnected from their true self, i.e., the most pure, innate, natural, free, and intensely alive aspect of their being so as to conform to the expectations of others around them – especially their primary caregivers and/or the ‘power-holders’ in their original family system. This disconnection from their primal, core ‘true self’ was a means of ‘getting by’ and emotionally surviving their original family system. As adult survivors, they may have no idea that they have lost connection with an innate, precious aspect of themselves, but may experience anxiety, addiction, depression, and other symptoms that are ultimately rooted in unmet needs and trauma unknowingly repressed during childhood. However, it is never too late for such an adult to recover, embrace, and embody their authentic, true self nature so as to reclaim and more fully realize who and what they most truly are at the most basic, fundamental level so as to live in a more emotionally honest, authentic, expansive, energized, and awakened manner.

Were You A Victim Of Abuse In Your Family-Of-Origin?

Psychological/Emotional abuse experienced in childhood can be insidious: It is insidious because the adult survivor is often unaware that they were in fact victims of abuse, and therefore may not ever seek help or treatment for the invisible psychological and emotional wounds sustained. When healthy mental and emotional functioning is impaired, such an adult is at high risk of developing a variety of mood disorders, addictive behaviors, and other maladaptive ways of being in the world in his or her subconscious attempts to navigate around the pain of an injured psyche.

This type of abuse, when repetitive and/or chronic, results in the child unconsciously believing that he or she is faulty, damaged, and unworthy of love, empathy, attention, and respect. The abused child develops distorted perceptions of self and others, often believing at an unconscious level that there is something wrong with them and that they must deserve the abuse. Such children typically strive life-long to be accepted and approved of by others as a means of proving to themselves that they are ‘okay’ and worthy of love. Having little self-worth, adult survivors of child abuse often find themselves in neglectful, even abusive relationships despite their best intentions to find happiness and love. They may go on to abuse their own children without being conscious of the fact that they are engaging in the very same hurtful behaviors that were inflicted upon them as children.

In the event that an adult survivor does for some reason seek the help of a Mental Heath professional, such as a licensed psychotherapist, they still may not receive the psycho-education and targeted support that they so desperately need to recover from abuse experienced while they were young. This is especially likely if the childhood wounds remain entirely unrecognized and go unreported by the client and/or the therapist unconsciously colludes with their client to prevent the painful material from arising in session (this is especially likely if the therapist has repressed childhood wounding of their own). Successful treatment and recovery from this particular form of child abuse is especially challenging in that the adult survivor in therapy may still be experiencing mental / emotional abuse as a consequence of wanting to remain connected to those who continue to abuse them (most commonly the parents).

Abuse Versus ‘Sub-Par Parenting’ 

While experts still do not agree on what behaviors constitute psychological/emotional abuse of a child, it is generally recognized by researchers that this form of abuse impairs the psychological and emotional growth and development of the child. Anyone that holds power, authority and/or privilege in the child’s life is potentially capable of mistreating the child, including parents, siblings, relatives, peers, teachers, ministers, scout leaders, coaches, judicial figures, social service employees, etc. The words ‘repetitive’, ‘chronic’, ‘persistent’, and ‘systematic’ are critical when it comes to defining the psycho-emotional abuse of a child. The behavior is abusive when it acts as a continuously destructive force in the child’s life, as the repetitive maltreatment shapes the child’s unconscious narrative describing ‘the truth’ of who they are at the most basic, fundamental level, resulting in the child believing they are ‘bad’, unworthy, faulty, damaged, unwanted, and unlovable.

Examples of this type of abuse by a parent toward a child include the child being blamed, shamed, dismissed, and/or belittled in public and at home; describing the child negatively to others, including in the child’s presence; always making the child at fault; holding the child to unrealistic expectations; verbalizing to the child and/or others an overt dislike and/or hatred of the child; being emotionally closed and unsupportive; and threatening the child. Below is a list that highlights additional acts exhibited toward a child that can result in impaired psycho-emotional functioning, which can include words, actions, complete indifference, and/or neglect:

  • Abandonment of the child (physical and/or emotional)
  • Verbal abuse (including calling the child “stupid”, “dumb”, “idiot”, “worthless”)
  • Intentionally terrorizing / frightening the child
  • Sarcasm, criticism, ‘teasing’; Ridiculing or insulting the child, then telling the child “it’s a joke”, or “you’re too sensitive / “you have no sense of humor”
  • ‘Gaslighting’, lying, distorting reality
  • Excessive performance demands (e.g., “You need to make straight A’s, all the time, or else”)
  • Shaming / Punishing a child for exhibiting natural behaviors (e.g., spontaneous and emotionally honest expressions, playing, laughing, age-appropriate body exploration, including masturbation)
  • Discouraging attachment / Withholding basic physical nurturing and touch
  • Overtly or covertly punishing the child for displaying positive self-esteem (e.g., “Don’t be so full of yourself, nobody likes a braggart”; “The world will knock you down a peg or two soon enough”)
  • Overtly or covertly punishing the child for developing healthy attachments (e.g., “You love your friends more than me”)
  • Dressing the child in a manner that provokes ridicule from peers and/or in a manner that the child experiences as shaming and humiliating
  • Exposing the child to traumatic / violent family scenes
  • Exposing the child to a chronically stressful, traumatizing environment (e.g., alcoholism; drug addiction; domestic abuse)
  • Unwillingness or inability to provide genuine nurturing and affection on a daily basis
  • Meeting basic physical needs only; unwilling to nurture and comfort the child (e.g., ignoring emotional needs; shaming the child for having emotional needs)
  • Failing to provide a growth-evoking environment for the child, including neglecting to nurture and support the child’s growing sense of self
  • Making the child an emotional ‘spouse’/partner (common after a divorce)
  • ‘Parentifying’ the child: Forcing the child to take on inappropriate parenting tasks versus allowing him or her to be a child
  • Expecting / Demanding the child meet the primary caregiver’s emotional needs (when it is supposed to be the other way around)
  • Social isolation: Isolating the child, including from peers
  • Bullying (psychological domination of the child)

The Impact On Adult Survivors

Abuse experienced during childhood can negatively impact the adult survivor throughout the duration of their lives, if the silent damage to heart, soul, and mind remains unrecognized, untreated, and unhealed. If the adult survivor of an abusive parent does at some point attempt to address the abuse, it is typical for the parent to deny that maltreatment of the child ever happened. It is common for the parent to blame the child for any negative behaviors displayed by the child toward the parent in an attempt to discredit the child’s or adult survivor’s truthful accounts of the abuse that actually occurred. The parent will often go to great lengths to tell anyone who will listen (other family members, especially) that their adult child has always been “a problem”, is “angry” and “unforgiving”, and other negative descriptions designed to discredit the adult survivor and protect the public image of the parent. Such intentionally aggressive tactics on the part of the parent is simply another unrecognized form of psycho-emotional abuse and further adds to the untold suffering and distress of the adult survivor, who may already be struggling with mental and emotional symptoms, such as the ones listed below:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Active or passive suicidal ideation
  • Misuse of alcohol and drugs, often resulting in addiction
  • Eating disorders
  • Panic disorders
  • Compulsive disorders
  • Agoraphobia
  • Difficulty forming meaningful, rewarding, trusting intimate relationships
  • Self-sabotaging, self-destructive behaviors (may include Borderline Personality Disorder-type symptoms)
  • Abusive acts toward self and/or others, including one’s own children

“I Think I Am An Adult Survivor Of Abuse: What Now?”

As illustrated here, the consequences experienced by the victims of psychological/emotional child abuse are potentially incalculable; however, research in this specific area has until recently been relatively sparse. The research that has been done to date suggests that children may experience lifelong patterns of disconnection, depression, anxiety, dysfunctional/’toxic’ relationships, low self-esteem, and an inability to experience empathy. Development processes may be impaired or even disrupted due to poor mental and emotional adjustment. By the time the child enters adolescence, they often find it difficult to trust and may find themselves unable to experience fulfillment and happiness in their interpersonal relationships, while not having any idea that the roots of their unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and distress as an adult may be found in their painful, wounding childhood. Sadly, if they become parents, adult survivors may have great difficulty identifying and responding empathetically and appropriately to the needs of their own children, thereby perpetuating the cycle of multi-generational abuse existing within their family system.

Alice Miller, renowned psychologist and author of the groundbreaking book, The Drama Of The Gifted Child: The Search For The True Self, had this to say about healing from childhood abuse: “Pain is the way to the truth. By denying that you were unloved as a child, you spare yourself some pain, but you are not with your own truth. And throughout your whole life you’ll try to earn love” (A. Miller, The Roots Of Violence ). Ultimately, healing the invisible wounds of any form of child abuse requires the adult survivor to bravely acknowledge even the most painful and incomprehensible truths; hence, the decision to take responsibility for one’s own well-being and healing is a most courageous act indeed. Perhaps it is also time that we ask ourselves as a society how we may be contributing to the continued abuse of children through our indifference, and what we are willing to do collectively to change this so that no child need ever believe that they are unworthy and undeserving of being loved.

If you think that you may be an adult survivor of use, I encourage you to visit Adult Survivors of Child Abuse to learn more about pathways to healing, and receive peer-support and resources; also, you might wish to consider engaging in psychotherapy with a therapist who specifically specializes in helping adult survivors recover from child abuse (they should consider themselves an ‘expert’ in this area for best results).

Take This Brief Quiz: Are You Living As Your True Self?

Rebecca C Mandeville, MA

Rebecca C Mandeville, MA

Therapeutic Life Coach and Organizational Consultant at ChainFree Living Coaching and Consulting Services
Rebecca C. Mandeville is a licensed psychotherapist, therapeutic life coach, educator, and author specializing in emotional healing and living authentically as one's true self. She is the founder of ChainFree Living (http://chainfreeliving.com), an online hub offering free resources and community peer-support to people who wish to consciously experience their innate wholeness. Her book, 'You Are Already Whole: On Discovering and Being Your True Self', will be published in 2017.
Rebecca C Mandeville, MA

Quiz Created By Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA,

ChainFree Living Transformational Life Coaching & Consulting Services

Recognizing and consciously reclaiming our own unique, true self nature is a paradoxical process of finding and embracing what we never really lost. It is an excavation project, of sorts, i.e., it is a process of uncovering, discovering, recovering, and consciously reclaiming who (and what) we in fact have always been, and will always be – That which is most true, honest, expansive, and alive within ourselves, yet constant and unchanging. As part of this reclamation and realization process, we will be challenged to release all that is false about ourselves and no longer serves us, including the parts of ourselves that we were conditioned to become by the various social systems we have been immersed in like a fish swimming in the sea, from our family-of-origin to the cultural and social systems we currently identify with, and everything in between. Note: Quiz button appears below the author’s box.

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