A Problem Shared…

The text book definition of anxiety is “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome”. The reality of it is terrifying, overwhelming and debilitating for sufferers.

When people come to counselling with anxiety, one of the first things I try to do is to give the person a sense that they are not alone, to explain a bit about what anxiety is and how normal this response actually is. It usually feels to people as though they are out of control. And in some sense, they are! But when you understand the mechanism that kicks in and why anxiety comes about, it provides hope for recovery.

So what is anxiety?… Essentially, I call it a built in safety mechanism that we humans and many other species on the planet have developed to protect ourselves from danger. Think of being a cave man back in the day: You see a wildebeest coming at you… what do you do?  Fight it? Run away? Hide until it moves on? In all of these options, you need adrenalin to get you pumped up and ready to react in that nanosecond you have to survive. You need blood to get to your muscles to run or fight if necessary and you need to be as light as possible to give yourself the edge. These are known as “Fight, Flight or Freeze” responses and nature takes care of it without prompting.

Unfortunately, evolution takes millions of years compared with the pace of change people have made in the last century. “Fight, flight or freeze” responses are not usually applicable in modern day living – although sometimes, there are the present day versions of wildebeests and times when these auto responses are really helpful. This explains why after a “near miss” in a car for example, we might experience jelly legs, a dry mouth, and a rushing heart rate.

When things are misjudged by the part of the brain responsible for this survival instinct, things can get responded to unhelpfully. Something completely harmless that was originally perceived or experienced as dangerous, frightening, or perhaps risky can trigger anxiety.

It can present in many forms: general anxiety disorder, panic disorder, fears and phobias, post-trauma stress responses, obsessive compulsive reactions. All are different degrees and ways in which our mind tries to make sense of these perceived threats.

In counselling, we can work with the symptoms of the anxiety – offering methods for grounding and calming the sufferer to be able to take back control. Alongside this, we can explore and identify the triggers for the responses and seek to untangle the crossed wires. We can work through the things that were not originally properly processed that have become “stuck” and learn new helpful responses to them.

For me, one of the most obvious things that many people do not do, is talk about anxiety. People feel worried how others will respond, may feel ashamed or that they are over reacting.  In my experience, the majority of people who have taken the step to share their worries with someone around them, have gained support, help to tackle the fear and have had someone to join in their journey to recovery.  So the old saying that “A problem shared is a problem halved” is not always entirely true, but it certainly helps carry the load!