What is it you truly desire in your life, and is anxiety getting in the way?
What might be different in your life a year from now if your anxiety could be addressed at a very deep level?
You may not have given much thought to those two important questions and that’s okay. Talking to a skilled clinician about anxiety can happen in the comfort of your own home using online telehealth therapy sessions or in my Clifton, NJ counseling practice. Anxiety is common and can be quite painful so you may feel a sense of desperation or urgency about getting help, as well as some fears at the same time.
So, What is Anxiety Anyway?
It’s useful to establish that anxiety and anxiety disorders are actually two different things. Just because you feel anxious some of the time does not necessarily mean you need treatment. Anxiety is something we all feel some of the time, and mental health treatment is really only indicated when a person experiences too much or too little conscious anxiety (anxiety you are aware of), or when anxiety is causing negative consequences. For example, feelings of anxiety may hold you back from things you want to do, stop you from taking healthy risks, and make it hard to realistically appraise safety and danger in different situations so you can act accordingly.
So, Am I Feeling Anxious or Do I Have an Anxiety Disorder?
Anxiety is a set of signals or alarms your nervous system sends to alert you there is danger. In general, a person’s nervous system is wired to send different types of signals when it registers the presence of a threat: physical, cognitive, or emotional signals. For example, our bodies may physically prepare us to fight or run through a series of sensations and chemical reactions, causing common physical signs of anxiety such as increased heart rate, body temperature changes, and bursts of adrenaline. In addition to these physical warnings, we also get emotional cues from our bodies, such as a feeling of fear mixed with an instinct to run or escape. Finally, there are cognitive changes that help us deal with danger. For example, it may be harder to think logically when we are in danger because we need to act without thinking too much, so the logical part of the brain gets shut down to some degree when danger is sensed.
So, When is Anxiety a Problem?
There are many different types of anxiety and worries people seek anxiety treatment for. Some people worry a lot about losing control of their bodies. They think a lot about things that seem wrong with their bodies, worry about getting sick, and wonder if there is something physically wrong they aren’t aware of. They may also be afraid of losing control, like having a panic attack or throwing up at unexpected times. Other people worry about social situations. They fear rejection or criticism and have anxieties about whether they will perform well enough in social settings to avoid judgment or criticism from others. There may also be a fear of making a mistake at work or saying the wrong thing, and being assertive may be scary due to fears of making others angry by speaking up.
Anxiety may be considered problematic or disordered for a number of different reasons, but most of the time therapy is needed either when a person is getting a lot of false alarms from his/her brain (telling him there is danger when things are actually safe), or when we become conditioned to avoid more and more situations because avoiding things makes us feel better (but also restricts us from living our lives). Constant false alarms mean you’re unable to accurately judge situational safety, and avoidance impairs your ability to complete regular tasks that others can take care of routinely. For example, your brain may alert you that supermarkets are dangerous by sending you a whole set of danger signals each time you think about approaching a supermarket, causing you distress and possibly leading you to avoid supermarkets altogether. Assuming that there is nothing more dangerous about your local supermarket than any other ordinary situation, this anxiety could stop you from being able to do an everyday activity such as grocery shopping when there is really no rational reason for you to be afraid of this situation. It’s simply a false alarm your brain is sending.
So, How Does Therapy Help with Anxiety?
Below, I’ve outlined some ways therapy sessions can help with the major forms of disordered anxiety.
Recognizing False Alarms
Learning to recognize and respond to false alarms is something that needs to be addressed in anxiety treatment. In fact, much of what we will do in treatment involves recognizing FALSE ALARMS as well as MISUNDERSTOOD ALARM SIGNALS, so you can interact more effectively with yourself and your environment. Anxiety is often a signal of an unconscious conflict or emotion that is experienced as dangerous. It will take time, but together, we can discover what your unconscious is REALLY trying to tell you about yourself.
Accurately Judging Situational Safety
Another problem happens when you lose your ability to judge which situations are safe and which ones are dangerous. This may be a result of life experiences that conditioned you to react to ordinary safe experiences with a sense of threat. For example, it is common for people to feel safe in relationships with their family members. However, if you were abused or hurt by a family member, you may no longer view family members as safe. You may also continue to feel unsafe and insecure around supportive and safe family members or significant others in your present life because you don’t know the difference between people who are safe and people who aren’t. Anxiety treatment can help you recalibrate your reactions to people and situations.
Taking Appropriate Actions Based on Real Risks
Anxiety can also stop us from taking action in situations where the risks are relatively low or when worrying or “over-thinking” won’t actually solve anything. Similarly, anxiety can be a problem when it leads to unhealthy avoidance of people, places, and things in our lives. Having a life that gets more and more constricted because of fear is no fun at all, but treatment can help you learn to recognize real risks and take appropriate actions only when the actions are necessary for your safety.
Handling Fear of the Unknown
If you’re anxious, you may also have a very big fear of the unknown. You prefer to stay in your comfort zone and choose that which is familiar rather than taking healthy risks that can enrich your life. If this sounds familiar to you, then you probably know what I mean when I say that some people really crave certainty. You might wish you could know ahead of time whether or not you’re making the right choices, or you may spend hours analyzing your decisions or obsessing over things you’ve said or done. Sometimes you get so stuck in your head that you can barely do the things you need to live a functional life.
So, What Happens During Therapy for Anxiety?
I want to reiterate that the type of anxiety treatment I offer my anxious clients is not a behavioral approach that focuses on learning a technique or cognitive reframe for coping with anxiety each time it comes up. Instead, I focus my efforts on helping you become less anxious in general, so you don’t need to live your life and make your choices from a place of fear through an approach I call psychotherapy intensive. During psychotherapy intensive appointments, we work together in frequent sessions (usually several times a week) to take a deep dive into the causes of anxiety and work toward real change. Instead of helping you just deal with each instance of anxiety as it occurs, I would rather help you get to the root of what is making you anxious, especially if there is an unconscious conflict that is disguising itself and making it hard for you to address the REAL source of your anxiety, which may date back to a time you don’t even remember.
One of the best techniques I use to help you with this is to encourage you to free associate (read more about free association here) and to help you make connections between your associations, thoughts, feelings, and memories by listening carefully to the words you say as well as to the patterns in your speech. The techniques we use to go deeper into addressing anxiety may feel weird at first because most of us are used to filtering what we say to others. This may also make you more anxious before you start to feel better. Again, I really believe in this approach as the way to lead to long-lasting changes that cut to the deepest core of your anxious self. I’m willing to help facilitate that journey if you’re willing to put in the work by coming to your sessions and speaking freely even if this makes you feel anxious and awkward at first. I KNOW how much this can help because I have seen it so many times, so trust me on this one, it is worth it!
Focusing on unconscious feelings and fantasies is especially important because we often transfer anxieties stemming from unconscious forces onto everyday things that really can’t be controlled (and don’t need to be either). Figuring out if issues like fear of anger, fear of dependency, or trying to avoid or suppress painful memories is at the heart of your anxiety can lead to relief once and for all. You may still struggle at times, but you’ll be much more in control of your choices when you can recognize your fears for what they are and stop letting them dictate your life.
So, Should I get Help for my Anxiety or Not?
If you have anxiety, you may even wonder if getting therapy is the right choice, or you may question or try to analyze whether you actually have anxiety or need help for it. Afterall, a lot of what you’re struggling with is overthinking right? Deciding whether you should get help for your anxiety may feel like a difficult decision, especially if decisions are hard for you in general. If you’d like to read more about my approach, check out this blog post.
So, What is the Next Step?
For more than a decade, I have been providing treatment for anxiety in Clifton, NJ, helping people understand their anxieties better and get relief from them. I also help people get unstuck when important areas of their lives are being affected by anxiety, such as committing to relationships, making job changes, moving out from living with their parents, setting boundaries, getting over fears of driving, overcoming fears of separation or being alone, and forming new habits overall.
Right now, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has increased stress and anxiety for many individuals, but some of us also find ourselves with enough free time to finally seek the help we need for concerns like anxiety. Social distancing and shelter-in-place orders don’t have to keep you from taking the first step while you have time. Consider scheduling a telehealth session to tackle anxiety and start feeling better. I look forward to hearing from you so we can decide whether we should work together to help you shed your fears and worries.