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What Your Anxiety May Be Trying To Tell You (And Why It's Important To Listen)

Updated on April 29, 2016
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Rebecca is a licensed Psychotherapist, Transformational Coach, and Author with over 20 years of experience in the Mental Health field.

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?

See results

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:

What Do You Think?

Do you think that anxiety symptoms could at times be signals inviting us to heal?

See results

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.


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:

5 Minute Quick Anxiety Reduction - Guided Mindfulness Meditation

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.

© 2016 Rebecca C Mandeville MA

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    • chainfreeliving profile image
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      Rebecca C Mandeville MA 17 months ago

      Mythbuster, that is FANTASTIC! I celebrate your courage and your success - I know how much self-honesty, self-awareness, dedication, and effort such tremendous healing requires. I'm so pleased you took time to read and comment on this hub. All the best, Rebecca

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      mythbuster 17 months ago from Utopia, Oz, You Decide

      This is a nice, informative hub. Thanks for sharing this information. Also - good news... for those who shy away from medications: you may not always have to take medication. I did meds + therapy and have now been anxiety med-free for 11+ years. Had to learn a LOT about myself, my reactions to my environment, etc., and it was a lot of work but being medication free is totally worth it!

    • chainfreeliving profile image
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      Rebecca C Mandeville MA 17 months ago

      Thank you, John. That's great you came back to see what I added to the hub! I would say that there are certain circumstances where the 'root' cause is treatable with an anti-anxiety med, FOR A SHORT PERIOD OF TIME - such as during drug and alcohol detox. Meaning, certain meds in this class really can be a life-saver during the first few weeks of detox and treatment. So perhaps I mean a more shallow root, if that makes sense - The deeper root cause still remains, but the detox does in fact at times require use of anti-anxiety meds - biologically speaking; or so I was taught by one of the greatest addiction treatment doctors of all time, Dr Barry Rosen - I was fortunate enough to be mentored by him. It really can be a necessity, in his view, and other medical doctors who specialize in detox have told me the same thing. The trouble is, most people are sent home from detox with the idea that they can just get by on these meds without doing the intrapsychic work (along with their 12 Step work, if they were so fortunate as to be at a treatment center that mandates attendance). Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac got addicted to anti-anxiety meds during her stint in drug rehab and she states now it stole eight years of her life from her, she was so addicted. She is very angry about it - that nobody ever mentioned the meds should be used only short term. Next thing she knew, she was addicted to some heavy-duty anti-anxiety meds. And it was VERY hard for her to get off them; I believe she needed professional detox to get off the meds she was put on in detox the first time around. Such is the insanity... I'll keep adding more content, feel free to check in again down the road. -Rebecca

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      JOHN D MUNGER JR 17 months ago

      I like this updated article! I am presently reading the Klonopin article, as I roomed with a detoxifying person at the Florida Recovery Center. His Post-Accute Withdrawal Symptoms were HORRIBLE!

      The statement "...anti-anxiety medication, while minimizing symptoms, does not always get to the root cause(s) of the anxiety itself" should have the word 'always' removed. The medication never gets us to the root cause. Psychotherapy and introspective work does get us in touch with ourselves, and people like you are indispensable in this regard.

      The graph of addiction vs. harm is interesting. How can tobacco not be THE most harmful substance to the body, followed by alcohol?

      I am still reading it, but great work so far!

    • chainfreeliving profile image
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      Rebecca C Mandeville MA 17 months ago

      Thank you, Purpose Embraced - I am glad you noticed that. Accepting everything as it is arising in the moment without labeling it as being 'good' or 'bad' is a way of reducing stress and even anxiety, and can even become part of one's Mindfulness (Meditation) practice. I appreciate your comment. -RCM

    • Purpose Embraced profile image

      Yvette Stupart PhD 17 months ago from Jamaica

      Thanks for your comprehensive hub on the issue of anxiety. This problem is pervasive in many societies and people are looking for help. I like the point you made about cultivating an attitude of acceptance as a means addressing anxiety because much of our anxiety is rooted in not accepting self.

    • chainfreeliving profile image
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      Rebecca C Mandeville MA 17 months ago

      Thank you for your kind review, DDE. Best, Rebecca

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      Devika Primić 17 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Informative and well written. I learned lots from this hub on this interesting topic. Anxiety is part of our lives when one gets experiences high levels of stress they are affected.

    • chainfreeliving profile image
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      Rebecca C Mandeville MA 17 months ago

      Thank you for taking the time to comment, Hbey k, and for such informative sharing. Yes, we must always look at interference with daily functioning and reduction in quality of life when considering the best way(s) to treat anxiety. For some, medication is a literal life-saver. For others, the side-effects and the risk of addiction and dependence to anti-anxiety medication are just not worth it (Xanax, in particular, can be quite problematic and is quite addictive when not used judiciously). As I mentioned in an earlier comment, each person is unique, and each pathway of treatment should therefore be tailored to the individual whenever possible. However, this is not often the case. Many just see a physician and are prescribed anti-anxiety medications, and that's it. And so my article (which focused on anxiety and childhood trauma) was written to show that there can be many causes of anxiety, and many possible treatments.

    • chainfreeliving profile image
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      Rebecca C Mandeville MA 17 months ago

      Thank you, Lisa V. In case you didn't notice the link within the article, I do highly recommend 'The Body Keeps The Score' - The Amazon product link is above: Full title: "The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma". I have had several clients and many friends say it is absolutely the best book they havc read on trauma and healing yet. The body is often overlooked in the treatment of anxiety, which is odd, given it is believed to be rooted in the 'fight / flight response'. Peter Levine's work is great also, and he and his certified practitioners hold workshops that are very beneficial to participate in. Hakomi therapy is also a wonderful body/mind modality. I agree, PTSD is used as a catch-all diagnosis - often in appropriately. There are distinct criteria that must be met; it is different than Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and the treatments therefore vary. Best, Rebecca

    • lisavanvorst profile image

      Lisa VanVorst 17 months ago from New Jersey

      Excellent and Educational hub on Anti Anxiety. I suffer from anxiety and take medications. Although the medication helps, I do not like the sleepiness it causes. However, it is better than having constant anxiety. I was diagnosed with PTSD following difficult times in my life. I believe doctors just diagnose most people who suffer from anxiety with PTSD. My triggers are not always avoidable. I am not on a high dose of this medication as I do not want to be dependent on medications. Once again thank you for writing this.

    • chainfreeliving profile image
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      Rebecca C Mandeville MA 17 months ago

      Hi Karen,

      Great to see you here! In this instance, I was referring to the unpacking and processing referred to in the Case Study of Jeremy: Intrapsychic work, journal keeping, etc. However, there are many ways of processing trauma - 'The Body Keeps The Score' - one of the books I included above as an Amazon pick, goes into great detail on this. EMDR can be an effective means of processing trauma for some people. I have coordinated treatment with many adjunct providers to assist clients in releasing trauma from their bodies - acupuncture, massage, EMDR, Peter Levine's methods, Hakomi methods - Were you wanting to see something specific on EMDR, or on 'unpacking and processing' in general? Best, Rebecca

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      Karen Manderville 17 months ago

      I'm following your articles Rebecca, very informative information. Thank you.

      Just wandering when you refer to "unpacking & processing, are you referring to the EMDR treatment or technique for past trauma, & other issues?

      If so could you do a separate article on that some time please.

    • chainfreeliving profile image
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      Rebecca C Mandeville MA 17 months ago

      Thank you, Carrie - So pleased you found it helpful! Best, Rebecca

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      Carrie 17 months ago

      A very insightful and helpful article. I learned a lot of valuable information that I will utilize the next time I experience anxiety.

    • chainfreeliving profile image
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      Rebecca C Mandeville MA 17 months ago

      Thanks, John. I'm thinking I will do a separate hub / article on Mindfulness Meditation as a treatment for anxiety. I'll a bit more to the article above about it as well. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is one of the best researched, and is proven to be effective in the lowering of anxiety. Thanks for the suggestion.

    • profile image

      JOHN D MUNGER JR 17 months ago

      This is a very direct, easily understandable article on Anxiety and what can be done to ameliorate its symptoms and effects on the individual. The articles are well chosen and helpful. The lone case study you cited was equally illustrative.

      I would like to see a bit more discussion on the "Mindfulness Meditation" approach to anxiety. A stated working definition for the term would help one (me, anyway) read on with an idea of what is involved. This is harder than the medication approaches because everybody can relate to taking a pill or anything similar without your having to explain what you mean.

      Overall, a very good synopsis of anxiety.

    • chainfreeliving profile image
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      Rebecca C Mandeville MA 17 months ago

      Indeed, CBT can be very helpful in treating anxiety, and I absolutely include this in my tool-kit for addressing anxiety. I see I did not mention it above, so I will add that in right now. I am glad to hear that you found this to be true for you. My clients that experienced trauma in childhood have reported to me that CBT was less effective than unpacking and processing family systems trauma, but each person has their own unique background and way of healing. Thank you for taking the time to comment. Best, Rebecca

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 17 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      When I was first diagnosed with anxiety, I was put on medication. Thankfully, however, I was also referred to a counselor who specialized in cognitive behavioral therapy. This was over twenty years ago, now, but the principles I learned have been a great help to me ever since. I was eventually able to go off of the medication, and have been helping others with what I learned.