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?
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
- Muscle Tension / Mysterious Aches and Pains
- 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
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
While 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:
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).