Saturday, August 4, 2012

Think Like a Therapist: Anxiety

Think Like a Therapist© is your lay source for becoming your own psychotherapist.  Think Like a Therapist© helps you learn about yourself and others as if you were actually in counseling—minus the time and expense. Your session begins now!  Think Like a Therapist© is not a substitute or service for the treatment of any mental health problems.  Please see a clinical mental health professional to address your mental health symptoms and illnesses. Copyright © 2012 Charles O’Connor. All Rights Reserved.

Think Like a Therapist©: Anxiety

So you tell me you’re anxious.  You may know it by the knot in your stomach, the tightness in your chest, the embarrassing sweat rings, or the culprit that keeps your mind racing.  These physiological symptoms, if bad enough, usually warrant a quick visit to your primary care physician and may result in a diagnosis of anxiety accompanied with pharmacological treatment.  There is little to no discussion of alternative interventions.  You cross your fingers and hope that the anti-depressant or anxiolytic medication works, and it may, but what if it doesn’t?  What if you prefer to remain drug-free?  Let’s say you chose to work with me instead, a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC).  How might I understand and treat your anxiety?  Let’s begin.

You Don’t Have to Be Your Emotions

I would first normalize your condition.  After all everyone experiences anxiety; it is a universal response to our individual fears.  You are not alone in your struggles.  You, however, are seeking personal growth to take charge of your anxiety.  You desire to understand the causes and I very much want to help.  You are not just another client; rather, you are a unique individual with a unique life.  For this reason, it is an honor to work with you.
An exploration of the etiology or source of your symptoms might result in an awareness of disavowed feelings, common of which are guilt and shame.  Guilt has to do with regret over personal behavior, seeing yourself at fault.  But are you?  Is your guilt justified?  Are you responsible?  If yes, feelings of guilt can help you right the wrong, allowing you to free yourself from the accompanying anxiety.  Consider this alternative instead: Maybe you are unknowingly accepting the blame for someone else’s offense.  Could I shove you and you would apologize?  If this resonates, then you may be struggling with shame or the lie that you, as a person, are fundamentally bad and therefore unlovable.  Feelings of remorse, inadequacy, loneliness, and rejection are tied to anxiety because of the underlying fear of not being good enough. 
What if you could make amends for your mistakes and invite reconciliation with those you’ve hurt?  What if you could learn to forgive yourself and, even better, love yourself?  What if you could free yourself from the hurt caused by someone else’s transgression?  What if, for once, you are not so quick to forgive?  The good news is that you get to decide.  And since you have chosen to face your anxiety, you can gain something that a pill can never provide: An understanding of how your fears keep you believing that you are someone you are not.

You Don’t Have to Be Your Behavior

A common behavioral response to anxiety is an overwhelming need to dominate oneself or others.  When you attempt to control yourself in a rigid and unforgiving way, compulsions result and represent futile attempts to offset underlying fears.  Common compulsions include excessive or uncontrollable:  eating, cleaning, organizing, video-gaming, exercising, masturbation, sex, drinking, and gambling, among others.  When the opposite occurs, you seek to dominate others through aggressive behavior such as bossing, criticizing, blaming, threatening, and forcing, all of which can escalate into emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.  On the other hand, you may disengage and seek safety by taking little to no authority over your life, leaving yourself susceptible to being manipulated and used.  Those frozen by anxiety wait to be told who and what they are.  Where do you fall?  Are you fair and balanced in how you treat yourself and others?

You Don’t Have to Be Who You Think You Are

If you live a life dominated by fear you might view yourself too highly or too lowly.  Feelings of pride and worthlessness, like domination and submission, are ineffective ways to regulate anxiety.  An accurate self-assessment of your strengths and weaknesses is a helpful way to embrace your positive characteristics while accepting the aspects of yourself that you would like to change.  You don’t have to be perfect; you don’t have to be a failure.  All you need to do is see yourself for who you truly are in the context of who you are becoming or would like to become. 
To conclude, ask yourself, “What are my fears?”—The ones that lead to worrying, doubting, questioning, criticizing, blaming, defending, controlling, obsessing, withdrawing, acting out or maybe not acting at all.  Do you trust in your ability to bring about what you fear the most in you life?  Or do you believe in your ability to recognize, face, and overcome your fears?  Because, after all, a powerful antidote to anxiety is the truth you claim for yourself and your life.