What Your Anxiety May Be Trying To Tell You (And Why It's Important To Listen)
What if Anxiety is not always just a symptom to be treated, but a 'health-seeking signal' inviting us to reconnect with the truest parts of ourselves that have been neglected or repressed? Below are examples 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. I also include information on non-psychotropic based interventions, specifically, Psychotherapy and Mindfulness Meditation practices.
Root Causes Of Anxiety
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Anxiety disorders are one of the most commonly diagnosed mental health disorders in the United States, affecting 40 million adults age 18 and older, (2014). Anxiety can be extremely uncomfortable to those experiencing it, and symptoms can include excessive worry, sleep disturbances, and shortness of breath (see list of symptoms in image below).
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 anxiety that is interfering with their daily functioning and quality of life typically prescribe anti-anxiety medication, but do not always recommend that their patient also consider seeing a qualified Mental Health professional so as to explore the possible root cause(s) of the anxiety, such as early childhood trauma (the focus of this article), as well as identify possible additional or alternative (i.e., non-prescription) treatments.
Signs And Symptoms Of Anxiety
Anxiety As A Messenger From The Unconscious
While anti-anxiety medication is certainly a reasonable option at times, and perhaps even medically advisable in specific instances (e.g., in cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder; Frequent Panic Attacks; Substance Abuse Withdrawal; Suspected Biochemical Imbalances, etc), it is my experience as a clinician that anti-anxiety medication, while minimizing symptoms, does not always get to the root cause(s) of the anxiety itself. When anxiety is viewed as a health-seeking signal emanating from the unconscious and the wisdom of the body, and not as a strictly pathological condition, or 'mental illness', entire new treatment pathways may be opened up and explored, as exampled in the below Case Study:
The Wisdom Of Anxiety: A Case Study
Psychotherapy As A Means Of Successfully Treating Chronic Anxiety
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 anxiety? As the following Case Study illustrates, this simple exercise alone can provide invaluable information regarding what anxiety 'signals' might be trying to convey
I once had a client (whom I will call 'Jeremy - not his actual name) share with me in session that he had recently felt extreme anxiety 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 a psychiatrist 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 experienced particularly strong symptoms of anxiety. During one such onset of extreme symptoms that occurred during a business trip, Jeremy realized while writing in his journal that he had begun experiencing anxiety symptoms 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 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 his anxiety symptoms via deep breathing exercises and Mindfulness Meditation practices he learned during 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 'The Body Keeps The Score' via the Amazon Product link below). He 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).
Learn More About How Your Body's Signals Can Help You Heal From Trauma
What's Your Experience With Anxiety?
Have you ever suffered from anxiety? If 'Yes', what was your approach?
Self-Medicating To Feel Different / "Better"
Loss of Connection With Self and Others: Anxiety And Self-Medication
For those individuals like 'Jeremy' (refer to above Case Study) who experienced turbulent childhoods as a result of growing up in a dysfunctional and/or traumatized family system, the experience of anxiety can begin in early childhood, although it is often not noticed by primary caregivers, teachers, the family physician, or others who might be able to appropriately intervene. Children, teens and young adults with undiagnosed anxiety may begin to 'self-medicate' with substances such as food, drugs, or alcohol and activities such as excessive TV watching and video gaming in an unconscious attempt to quiet the discomfort of anxiety symptoms without even realizing that they are seeking some kind of temporary or permanent relief.
Adults who did not experience anxiety when younger may develop anxiety without being consciously aware of it, and they, too, may begin self-medicating with substances. Having worked in several drug and alcohol treatment centers, I can say with certainty that unrecognized, undiagnosed, and untreated anxiety was often fueling the process of addiction, meaning, the addict began using substances initially to escape a sense of internal discomfort that was not recognized as anxiety at the time. In short, a fundamental experience of disconnection from self and others along with unrecognized anxiety symptoms were identified by nearly every drug and alcohol addicted client I have worked with as being at the root of his or her addictive patterns and behaviors. To learn more about loss of connection with self and others, read my article, below:
Read More About Growing Up In A Dysfunctional, Traumatized Home And Loss Of Connection With Self
- Was It Sub-Par Parenting Or Actual Psycho-Emotional Child Abuse?
Ever wonder if you were were the victim of actual psychological / emotional abuse versus ‘sub-par parenting’ as a child? Many people have no idea that they grew up in abusive, ‘toxic’, and/or dysfunctional environments...
What Do You Think?
Do you think that anxiety symptoms could at times be signals inviting us to heal?
The Pros And Cons Of Anti-Anxiety Medication
As discussed at the beginning of this article, medication can relieve some of the symptoms of anxiety, but it doesn’t cure the underlying problem and it’s usually not a long-term solution. Anxiety medications also come with side effects and may lead to a dependence on the medication. With the popularization of psychotropic medications to treat a variety of mental and behavioral health disturbances, anxiety is primarily seen as something to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. It is increasingly common for family doctors to write out a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication after only a brief discussion with their patient regarding the distressing symptoms being experienced, without recommending that the patient also confer with a Mental Health professional, such as a therapist or counselor.
Understanding Anxiety Medication (Benzodiazepines)
- Anxiety Medication: What You Need to Know About Anti-Anxiety Drugs
Are anti-anxiety medications right for you? Learn about common side effects, risks, and how to take them responsibly.
The Most Abused And Deadly Benzodiazepines - What Your Doctor Didn't Tell You
- Is This the World's Deadliest Pill? | The Fix - Page 0
Some say it's not an opiate painkiller like Oxy, but Klonopin. And doctors are doling it out like candy, causing a surge of hellish withdrawals, overdoses and deaths. page #0
Mindfulness Meditation And The Reduction Of Anxiety Symptoms
While taking anti-anxiety medication to minimize anxiety symptoms is a personal choice, and in some cases is medically advisable, there are other effective interventions that a person suffering from anxiety can pursue, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy; keeping an Awareness Journal as part of ongoing Psychotherapeutic-based Intrapsychic / Family Systems work (as discussed in the above Case Study); engaging in deep breathing exercises; yoga; daily physical exercise; 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. You can learn more about this important study and other similar studies via the below two links:
More About The Mindfulness Meditation Research Study Addressing Anxiety
- How Does Meditation Reduce Anxiety at a Neural Level? | Psychology Today
In recent years there has been a steady stream of research showing the power of mindfulness meditation to reduce anxiety. Until now, the specific brain mechanisms of how meditation relieves anxiety at a neural level were unknown.
Jama Network Studies Analysis On Mindfulness Meditation And Anxiety
5 Minute Quick Anxiety Reduction - Guided Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR): What Is It, How It Helps
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: What it Is, How it Helps | Psychology Today
Mindfulness teacher and writer, Elisha Goldstein, PhD on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, the subject of his new co-authored workbook.
FREE Online Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Course
- Online MBSR (free)
This online MBSR training course is 100% free, created by a fully certified MBSR instructor, and is modeled on the program founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Working Mindfully With Anxiety
As the above 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. Journaling, 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.
For additional resources pertaining to Mindfulness Meditation as an alternative, non-medication based treatment for anxiety, you may explore the 'Headspace' link below. And please feel free to share your experiences of anxiety in the comment section - I'd love to hear from you.
6 Easy Yoga Poses To Reduce Anxiety
- Do These 6 Poses To Ease Anxiety + Save Your Sanity | Rodale's Organic Life
We go straight to the source for a series of calming yoga postures.
FREE APP: Headspace For Anxiety
Our series of Meditation for Anxiety sessions help you to deal with worries and feel calmer. Sign up to use our Meditation App for free today!
© 2016 Rebecca C Mandeville MA