Getting Past Anxiety: A Formula that Works
Do you worry all the time? Are you a ball of stress? Do you struggle with perfectionism, panic, or simply overthinking things?
Anxiety is no fun, but lots of people wait until things get really bad to get help.
If you struggle with anxiety, you may find yourself minimizing the problem; telling yourself it’s not so bad, or that needing therapy is a sign of weakness or deficiency. Underneath this may be shame or else some deep-seated beliefs about the importance of being strong, normal, or together.
Or perhaps you have already tried to get help for your anxiety or panic attacks, but found that your anxiety didn’t go away, or only got better for a short time.
Some therapists say that it’s important for people with anxiety to push themselves to face their fears.
On some level, this is true…but what if you don’t know what it is that you’re really afraid of?
In my work, I have found that the story people consciously tell themselves about their anxiety is often quite different from what they’re really unconsciously afraid of. In this sense, the conscious target of a person’s anxiety is often just a mask for something that is buried in the unconscious. For example, a fear of heights might really be about traumatic memories from when one’s father used to get “high” and use drugs. A fear of “moving on” from a job or relationship may have to do with a traumatic move in childhood. The trick is to figure out what the undercover issue really is.
Whereas in many cases a straightforward CBT, family therapy, medication, or even psychodynamic approach can be helpful, I have found that some people with anxiety require a specific blend of interventions in order to unlock the core issue that is upholding the anxiety. This is because the role of the unconscious is to protect a person from threat, and if there is an unconscious threat that is not being addressed, the anxiety will often persist.
One way the unconscious protects us from threat is to obscure or cover up any wishes, thoughts, feelings, or memories that feel unsafe for us to acknowledge. The unconscious may do this by creating anxiety any time we get close to becoming aware of what it is that is threatening, or by leading us to focus on the wrong issues.
For example, you may focus on a trauma from childhood, thinking that a fear of the trauma happening again is what is creating your anxiety about trusting in relationships. However, from an unconscious perspective, the real danger might be that if you feel safe enough to stop thinking about the trauma, you may let down your guard in general, and risk showing a side of yourself that others might disapprove of. In this case, resolving the trauma is not going to solve the anxiety, because feeling safe comes with a separate anxiety that needs to be worked through.
The formula I have found helpful for helping people uncover the root issue that is fueling their anxiety is as follows. First, I will try to help you open up and begin talking. You may be afraid to say certain things out loud; for example, that you resent something in your life or that someone you love is not perfect. I will help you understand that it’s not an act of betrayal, and doesn’t mean anything bad, to admit to having a negative feeling or thought about someone or something in your life. Also, many people with anxiety feel a sort of performance anxiety in therapy sessions, as if they have to come up with the right things to say, or important things to talk about. So, I will try to help you just relax, especially if you’re shy and/or dislike awkward silences.
Next, I will listen for certain words, phrases, or themes that seem to come up repeatedly in your speech. Your words are doors into your unconscious; clues pointing towards an unresolved core issue. So, for example, if you talk about wanting to be in control all the time, or being afraid of doing something out of control, I might ask you to say more about what comes to mind when you think of “control”. This might make you think of someone controlling in your life, or of a memory of a time you didn’t have control over something.
Once we get clear about the words or themes that seem important in your life, it is likely that your unconscious will resist the process of getting closer to identifying and resolving the core issue. At this point, you may start feeling more anxious than before, or you may start to question whatever it is that we’ve been talking about in therapy so far. My job at this point will be to help you understand that it’s safe to let go of your resistance and to let yourself become conscious of whatever it is that is about to come to the surface and that is waiting to be uncovered.
Once safety is reestablished and unconscious fears are addressed, it becomes possible to confront the core issue that has been keeping your anxiety alive, and to disentangle you from your anxiety. At this point, we may end up talking about something embarrassing that you thought you could never talk to anyone about, or you might realize that you were living your life according to a childhood belief that is no longer serving you. We may discover that you have been afraid all along of something that has already happened. Whatever it is, this phase of therapy can either be terrifying and painful, or painless and natural. Either way, you will survive, and once your defensive system comes toppling down, you will feel tremendous relief and a sense of freedom.
Before you embark on this journey, though, I want to mention that each person’s story is unique, and that there is no one outside of yourself who holds the answers you need. Your unconscious alone holds the key to resolving your anxiety, but you may need a therapist to help your unconscious mind understand that it’s finally safe to speak of whatever it is that is buried inside of it.
Are you ready?