One of the most common reasons people come to therapy is that they are feeling anxious, and anxiety feels bad. You can’t relax, you either sleep too much or too little, but you still feel tired all the time. You may eat too much or too little, and then you feel anxious about gaining/losing weight. Sometimes it gets so bad, you flunk out at school or can’t function at work. Maybe you can’t leave the house without feeling anxious.
By the time some people come to see me, their lives have pretty much ground to a halt, and they want their anxiety to go away RIGHT NOW–just give me a pill or something to make it go away! If you go to a doctor, s/he will probably prescribe anti-anxiety medication. So, problem solved!
Well, medication might help. There are tranquilizers like Valium or Ativan, but they are almost always addictive and short term. Long term medication (SSRI’s), take two to three weeks to kick in. And contrary to what you might hear in the media, they don’t work for everyone. If it does work you will probably have to deal with side effects, from dry mouth to drowsiness to more severe consequences–like interfering with your level of desire and your ability to have an orgasm. If I weren’t feeling anxious already, this would definitely push me over the edge (as one of my clients said to me, “The one thing that was working in my life was masturbation, and now I can’t even do that!”). And then, just to add insult to injury, anti-anxiety medication, if that is the only approach you take, often only works for a while before it stops working. You can keep increasing the dose, or start combining it with other medications, but all of these things have side-effects that can become really debilitating. And even with all this medication, you will still be feeling anxious at least some of the time.
So what can be done?
Well, to me, it seems obvious we have to stop automatically treating anxiety as a disorder. Except in unusual cases, it is not. You can’t medicate it away, because, in all likelihood there is nothing wrong with you. Anxiety is our body’s way of alerting us that something is trying to emerge into consciousness–something that is so troubling we don’t want to look at it. So we try to push it back into sub-consciousness. Except our sub-conscious (what I refer to as “the Body”) really needs us to pay attention, so it pushes back. The place where the need to acknowledge a feeling meets the pressure to keep a lid on it is the place where we feel anxiety.
To illustrate this, clasp your hands together. Now push up with your left hand and down with your right. Now really increase the pressure–as hard as you push up with the left hand, push down, just as hard, with the right. You will notice that the place where these two hands meet is a place of extreme tension. It’s very uncomfortable. Over time, it would become painful and distressing. This is what we experience as anxiety.
When your right hand is completely involved in controlling what the left hand is doing, nothing else can happen. You can’t use your hands to actually do stuff. This is what happens when we are severely anxious–our consciousness becomes fully involved in managing itself, and we can’t do anything else. Eventually life grinds to a halt.
Many artists and other creative folk come to me for counselling because they are “creatively blocked”. Although they may not be aware of feeling anxiety, when we explore further, we inevitably discover the same kind of internal standoff. In these cases, the war within is so habitual they have become numb to their own distress. The only signpost that remains is this “block” that prevents them from doing something they really want or need to do. So, how can this be a good thing? Why do I say we need to learn to love our anxiety? If it is distressing, painful, all-absorbing and creatively blocking, how can it be a good thing? More importantly, what can I do about it?
The more germane question, to my way of looking at it, is “What is my Body trying to tell me that is so important my entire life can get derailed?” In my next post, I will begin to address these questions, by outlining some of the many ways we can learn to understand and make friends with our anxiety.