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Moving on from Managing Anxiety

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Anxiety was the most searched term on the Counselling Directory in August. With around 45,000 searches, more than double the second most searched. Anxiety was the theme of this year's mental health awareness week a few months ago. There are posts across social media about how to deal with anxiety and resources available. In many ways it's a good thing that more people are talking about difficult feelings and the importance of wellbeing. And, I have a problem with how the language of mental health and managing symptoms could be maintaining a system that keeps us stuck in our deeper problems - both individually and collectively.

To me, some of this language risks compartmentalising and splitting something from a more whole picture of how we feel and who we are, and risks creating a problem out of a range of human emotion and feeling responses to live situations. Similarly, the problem risks becoming located in the individual. It becomes their problem, and the development of strategies and tools to deal with it is the solution, without consideration of the situational factors that have contributed to the struggle.

Anxiety, like all feelings, is a response to something. Its not something to 'have', like a virus or a disease. Its a configuration of sensations, thoughts, feelings, beliefs and fears that are constellated in response to something in the present moment.

Feelings of anxiety could be evoked in response to an overwhelming and under-supported work or family situation, or more complicatedly could be a habitual response informed by unresolved traumatic childhood experience, or simply the mobilising of energy in anticipation of doing something new or challenging. If there is a chronic tendency to override or ignore feelings and needs the mass of undealt with emotional energy can gather as undifferentiated anxious feeling that is hard to identify the reason for.

Anxiety needn't be a 'mental health problem', but the very evidence of our human vulnerability and a signal that we need some reassurance or have some other emotional need to be attended to. We get scared, worried, feel unsure. We are not impervious to increasing demands without enough support. Our systems become overloaded if we haven't allowed important feelings like grief or rage in response to the hurts, disappointments and losses in life.

Anxiety is a feeling we will all encounter in the day to day experience of our lives and can indeed become crippling for some people. I certainly have had my own experiences of feeling paralysed in anxiety and powerless in the face of it. It can be a truly distressing experience and deeply isolating.

I would like for us to be talking more about how come? How come anxiety has become such a problem? What is trying to be communicated in this feeling? What need has gone unmet? What demand has been too great? What belief has become too unwieldy and limiting?

Paradoxically, trying to manage and keep a lid on difficult feelings might fan the flame for more anxiety. Uncomfortable feelings like anxiety become something to be 'made better', which can end up being another kind of avoidance or demand to be different. My invitation is that we turn more fully towards difficult feelings, than try to manage them or make them go away. In giving feelings the space they need to be felt and known, and their messages understood, there's the potential for them to come, and then to go again. In bringing this kind of interest, curiosity and invitation to the distressing feeling we can become better friends of ourselves and each other.

It can be a common suggestion for people struggling with anxiety to try mindfulness meditation, deep breathing and other relaxation techniques. There may well be times this is helpful. And, there may be other times where something needs to come out, be that tears, anger, an expression of powerlessness in a difficult situation, rather than being quietened down. Anxiety can be a bit like being stuck in first gear revving the engine, there's energy there and it needs somewhere to go.

Building a set of tools and techniques to manage anxiety can be really helpful when these go hand in hand with an understanding of what the anxious feeling is about. Without having some awareness of the need that the anxiety is trying to draw attention to there is a risk of being stuck in a loop of trying to manage a symptom when the cause continues to go unaddressed.

When we know more about what we are feeling and why, and what we might need in that moment we can become more adept at finding our way towards things that might help. This could be talking to a friend, expressing something in writing or art, doing something enjoyable. Equally it could mean saying no more often, asking for help, realising when too much is too much. Greater awareness may indicate the need for a more significant change in life situation, if this is the source of ongoing distress, or indeed addressing ways of being in the world that no longer work.

And, there are aspects of the nature of the state of the world we live in that can trigger considerable anxiety, such as global warming, war and other existential threats. Having to manage financially during a period of inflation can be anxiety inducing, for many this is an ongoing reality given the unequal nature of our society. In these kinds of situations a systemic response is needed to address deep rooted poverty and entrenched inequalities. Finding ways to navigate these complexities and frightening realities will take something more from us all than managing the anxiety we feel in response. Anxiety here may be a very appropriate response to a way of living and operating that has gone very out of balance and threatens the continuation of our species. Harnessing the energy of that fear, and the grief and rage that go along with it - for many - may be a very necessary part of our journey as humans in forging a new way forward.

Uncomfortable as it is, soothing anxiety and feeling better may not always be in our best interests if that keeps us from facing the realities of what is causing us pain, be that on a personal or collective level. As one of my favourite Gestalt Therapists, Robert Resnick, once wrote, 'chicken soup is poison'.

Distressing feelings like anxiety can be a call towards something new, something richer, more satisfying. It takes courage to face into these kinds of feelings and the surrounding beliefs that can keep us stuck there. And, I believe the reward of living in a way that is more connected with the truth of how things are creates the space for new options and choices to emerge and the potential for more aliveness, sense of agency and creativity.

If any of the themes raised in this article have piqued your interest and you'd like to explore further, please contact me.


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