What Are You Worried About?
Anxiety is an extremely common issue that most of us struggle with. In fact, it’s one of the most diagnosed issues I treat and often exists alongside many other issues. However, anxiety is only a symptom and is very treatable.
How is anxiety only a symptom? Well, because it rests on some other reason(s) to be worried or concerned. Someone who has never had a reason to worry may not struggle with anxiety; someone who has lost a job and become homeless, however, has very good reasons to worry.
As a symptom, anxiety is future-focused yet often rooted in the past. It projects past hurts or fears out onto the future, making it hard to live in the present. Anxiety is also based on false beliefs and negative thinking patterns. Because something terrible happened in the past, anxiety says it will happen again. The problem with this is that while there may be a small possibility or recurring hurt, it is almost never true. In fact, the anxious belief system and thought pattern often is a contributing factor to exposure to repeated traumas.
So what should we do about it then?
I believe that there are two things going on with anxiety. First, there are the anxious symptoms. Examples include nervousness, difficulty/shallow breathing, tiredness and fatigue, muscle aches, headaches, racing thoughts, sweating, and difficulty sleeping. These are all physiological expressions of anxiety that tell us we are anxious about something. These symptoms are usually present-focused in the sense that we experience them actively, currently – right now.
Secondly, there are the underlying reasons or causes for the anxiety. These can vary, but common examples include childhood traumas (abuse, violence, injuries), parental abandonment, betrayals (such as affairs), car accidents, natural disasters, witnessed or experienced violence, and loss of loved ones. These real life experiences can be singular (one occurrence) or repeated, and can have significant effects on our ability to trust, be vulnerable, feel safe, love, and be loved. Issues like these are typically past-focused in that they happened somewhere in our histories, and we attempt to avoid them (in our thoughts and also in real life), which often produces the symptoms.
Since there are two issues going on at the same time, it is important to address both. However, I believe it can be very difficult to deal with the root issues without first learning how to cope with symptoms. Here is a simple example to make the point: imagine being heartbroken that Brandon Roy was forced to retire from basketball and the Portland Trailblazers because of an injury. Since he was the “go-to guy” at the end of close games and would often make the winning basket, you worry about who will fill that role now that he’s gone. In looking at the schedule, you can see that the Blazers are playing the best team in the league in two weeks, and that it will be a pivotal game for making the playoffs. You can’t bring yourself to go to that game because of your anxiety, despite being a huge fan. If you could learn to deal with the anxiety, you would be able to go and enjoy the game, regardless of the outcome. However, if we attempted to learn how to cope while at the game, you would probably have a hard time doing so because the action would be taking place right in front of you!
Both parts of the puzzle are important, but addressing the root issue almost always precludes coping with the symptoms. Thankfully, there is a great deal of research on treatment for anxiety symptoms that shows it can be very effective in reducing or removing them altogether.
I utilize the most effective and common form of treatment for anxiety – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Since anxiety symptoms are mostly about physiological reactions to cognitive processes (our thinking producing certain bodily sensations), CBT focuses on examining and changing those cognitive processes to be more positive and realistic. When we look at thought patterns, we often see negativity that produces insecurity and anxiousness, which then seeps out of the body. Learning to become aware of our thoughts and thinking patterns can be challenging because it’s mostly automatic – it happens without our even paying any attention to it. But this is precisely the problem! Once we become aware of our negativity, we can focus in and change it; we can take ownership of what and how we think to create new patterns of thought. Of course, just as it took time for our current patterns to develop and become habit, so will it take some time and practice to implement new patterns to replace those old ones.
I try to focus on two parallel planes in counseling: the theory and application. Theory looks at understanding what’s taking place in our heads, while application seeks to actively make changes in real life. I believe it’s important to be informed about what’s going on so that when we try to make changes, we know what’s going on enough to be effective.
The good news about anxiety is that it is treatable! Don’t be too frustrated and give up on yourself – you may just be fed up with it enough to have strong motivation to change with the right help. Contact me today if you’d like to talk more about how I can help you with your anxiety, or to schedule an appointment to get started working on it. I’m confident that if you’re willing to face it, we can overcome those issues together.