What Is Anxiety and can It Be Treated? – By Pete Tobias

Anxiety was born in the very same moment as mankind. And since we will never be able to master it, we will have to learn to live with it— just as we have learned to live with storms.” – Paulo Coelho

We live in increasingly uncertain times exasperated by the continuing impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic. For most, if not all of us, this could mean increased levels of anxiety which is a completely normal (and healthy!) response to the threat and uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Contrary to popular belief, anxiety is actually a necessary part of the human experience, and a valuable adaptive mechanism that has helped humanity survive and navigate the complexities of life. From an evolutionary perspective, we believe that anxiety was a healthy survival mechanism that developed in early humans to help them survive the many life-threatening situations they would have encountered on a daily basis. This resulted in the autonomic nervous system developing fight, flight or freeze strategies in response to perceived danger.

We have all felt these responses at one time or another during our lives when confronted by perceived danger – a sudden sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses that have helped us fight off a threat or flee to safety. However, if we encountered trauma or stressors in childhood or adulthood (including in relationships) that overwhelmed our autonomic nervous system, these adaptive healthy responses can malfunction – ultimately triggering our fight, flight or freeze responses when we aren’t necessarily in a life-threatening situation. Unfortunately, if left untreated this can become a pattern and lead to debilitating daily anxiety and even anxiety disorders. This means that our anxiety response – a healthy response to dangers such as a global pandemic – can become maladaptive and be triggered by anything from work stressors to relational problems. Most of us will have very little control over this automatic process and it can affect our lives in distressing ways, contributing to chronic feelings of anxiety, depression, and even addiction.

Anxiety responses frequently develop in response to trauma. There are different types of traumas ranging from trauma caused by a singular traumatic event such as a car accident or long-term exposure to a frightening situation (abusive relationships). Anxiety can also develop based on our experiences with primary caretakers in our childhood. Growing up in a physically and emotionally safe environment with attentive and caring caretakers who consistently treat us with love and respect, and protect us from danger can help us form healthy attachments. However, if we didn’t experience a safe and nurturing environment as a child, we can develop insecure and avoidant attachment patterns. This in turn can have a damaging effect on our adult relationships and lead to conscious and unconscious anxiety.

Anxiety shows up in different ways and it has different layers. It can show up cognitively (repetitive negative thought patterns), physically in our bodies (shortness of breath, trembling, freezing), or in our behaviours (anger outbursts, unhealthy relationship patterns). The best way to treat anxiety is to make sure we are paying close attention to all of these different components. Physical and cognitive symptoms associated with anxiety can also be caused by medical issues so it’s important to consult a doctor before starting psychotherapeutic work on anxiety so that you can rule out any underlying physical causes.

Many people find it difficult to identify their symptoms as anxiety. Others struggle to know for certain whether their levels of anxiety are ‘healthy’ or whether they are in a chronic state of stress. Some of the most common symptoms that warrant treatment include:

– Rapid breathing;

– Increased heart rate;

– Feeling hot or experiencing cold flushes;

– Repeatedly wanting to go to the toilet with urgency;

– Feeling like you are having a heart attack or heart palpitations;

– Sweating;

– Flight, freeze or fight responses at inappropriate times;

– Feeling a loss of control;

– Negative thought spirals;

– Loss of energy and/or low mood;

– Changes in sleep pattern or eating habits;

– Unhealthy or destructive patterns of behaviour within relationships.

If you experience any of these symptoms regularly, it may be time to get help. Anxiety can feel overwhelming, but there is hope. With the right help we can learn to manage our anxiety. There are a number of ways to treat anxiety using psychotherapy. It’s important to learn more about our relationship with our emotions. One way is to befriend ourselves and to learn how to name our emotions. Identifying how we feel can help us better navigate our emotions and our responses to them. We can also learn how to regulate our emotional and behavioural responses in relationships as adults. It’s never too late! There are also strategies to help us manage the physical symptoms including breath work, grounding exercises and somatic skills that can help us respond practically in the moment we feel overwhelmed by our anxiety. These can be taught within the safety of the therapeutic environment.

In fact, the therapeutic relationship itself can be a wonderful way to help manage our anxiety. Anxiety can make us feel like we are isolated and alone, but through the therapeutic relationship we can feel supported, and learn to respond to ourselves and our emotions differently. The therapeutic relationship becomes a safe container within which we can explore feelings and uncover the past experiences that have not been processed and that may be contributing to our anxiety. Where there is trauma I also rely on EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) to help treat the co-morbidity of anxiety and trauma, holistically. Often there are underlying illnesses, losses, grief, sexuality issues, or attachment issues that have not been processed. Working through these can help us overcome the debilitating and destabilising effects of anxiety. We cannot control the storms of life, but we can control how we respond to them.

If you are interested to learn more about my approach to treating anxiety, feel free to book a free, no-obligation consultation. You can also call or e-mail me for more information.

©Pete Tobias Counselling

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