Anxiety: My journey towards healing and understanding

Before I started my counselling training and my therapeutic journey I lived in a container of anxiety for most of my life. There was a part of me that clung to anxiety as it was all I really knew. I was a victim of Stockholm syndrome and anxiety was my captor. Anxiety for me was an unpleasant safe haven which I returned to again and again. It was not until my journey of healing and discovery that I was able to leave this safe haven and integrate the fact that “I was not my anxiety” and that I could live a peaceful life where my potential as a human being could be recognised and exercised free from the shackles of my captor. In the process of trying to understand my anxiety, I studied how it was interpreted through physiological and psychological models.

The modern definition of anxiety states that anxiety is a complex blend of unpleasant emotions and cognitions that is more oriented towards the future. Anxiety creates a state of tension and apprehension that is a natural response to a perceived threat.

Anxiety responses have a subjective-emotional, cognitive, physiological, and a behavioural component. Anxiety is a warning that something is wrong and that we are under threat.

The medical model distinguishes between anxiety and fear but states that the difference is only slight. Fear is a basic emotion that involves activation of the “fight, flight, or freeze” response of the autonomic nervous system. Anxiety at a physiological level creates a state of chronic over-arousal – a feeling that “something awful may happen and I better be ready if it does”. Anxiety does not activate the “fight, flight, or freeze” response but it prepares us for this response should the anticipated danger occur. In anxiety we are subjected to a constant drip of adrenaline due to this heightened state. This biological preparation and over-arousal can manifest itself as an increased heartbeat, muscle tension, rapid breathing, nausea, dry mouth, and increased sweating.

Sometimes we can experience the full fear response in the absence of an obvious external danger, and we experience Fear. This is called a panic attack. Panic attacks can be a strong indication of some past trauma in our life. When we experience trauma the physical, psychological, and emotional systems can become overwhelmed and disorganised, and this can continue after the threat has passed, resulting in lasting changes in these systems and also in cognition and memory.

When we experience a panic attack due to a traumatic event the nervous system takes over. Suddenly, we can be transported, as if in a time machine, to the event of the original trauma and we react with the emotional intensity that would have been appropriate then but not now. This feeling could be triggered by many things, like something being said to us, being left alone, a particular season of the year, and smells, touch, tastes, or anything associated with the trauma.

We can learn a lot from the medical model in terms of the physiological component of anxiety and panic attacks. Being aware of the physiological aspects of anxiety is important and may help us to identify this over-arousal when it occurs.

When my anxiety is “embodied” I can feel it in my heart and my stomach. I also get very hot and my hands sweat. When I feel anxiety in my body I generally listen and pay attention to what it's trying to tell me and I breathe through it until it passes.

Other times my anxiety is purely in my thoughts, I know that's the neurotic side of my anxiety. The medical model generally focuses on the physiological aspect of anxiety only and therefore is incomplete in my opinion. The DSM would call anxiety a “disorder” when it interferes with daily life and functioning. However if we view ourselves as “disordered” I think it can reduce our capacity for empathy. We run the risk of seeing ourselves or others only as their “illness” or “disorder”.

Anxiety from a psychological perspective has a number of interpretations. Psychoanalysis tries to uncover unconscious, underlying repressed physic conflict which could be the source of anxiety symptoms. Freud states that only the ego can produce and feel anxiety, which acts as an alarm signal that something is wrong.

From my experience of anxiety I can identify to a degree with Freud's model. My anxiety started when I was about eleven and the partial underlying cause was that I realised I was “different”. My early teenage years were fuelled with symptoms of anxiety as I was repressing my innate homosexual orientation. There was a deep psychic conflict and a great deal of 'moral anxiety' where my superego was telling me that my nature was disgusting and improper. Freud states that what is repressed always returns as symptoms. When I was strong enough to allow my true nature to consciousness the symptoms of anxiety reduced.

The Humanistic perspective like the psychoanalytical approach is concerned with what is underneath the symptoms of anxiety. This is a complex process and is largely unconscious. Anxiety can result from trauma which occurred in any stage in life, and we may not be aware of the source. Some theorists suggest that anxiety is linked to our very early experiences such as our womb life or our physical birth, or severe separation anxiety from the mother in our earliest years – this trauma that we experience in panic can be linked to these formative experiences.

Rank's earliest work focused on birth trauma, the idea that the anxiety experienced during birth was the model for all anxiety experienced afterwards. People who experience free floating anxiety may be carrying trauma from this period. It can be worked through in therapy but ultimately the person may have to do some sort of regression therapy and work within an expanded states of consciousness (Breathwork for example) to revisit and hopefully integrate this trauma.

Although the symptoms of anxiety are generally future orientated, the underlying cause of the anxiety stems from the past. Expressions of anxiety are projections of our inner experience onto outside experiences or objects. Anxiety can be constructive as it shows an internal struggle occurring. From my own experience of anxiety I can hugely identify with the Humanistic perspective. Symptoms of anxiety for me started a year after a major life event where I had discovered I had a brother that was born in one of Ireland's notorious mother and baby homes and was given away before I was born. Suddenly, this stranger appeared in my life who was my eighteen year old full biological brother. For my ten year old self, this was a crisis and was very confusing. Through my process in therapy I have worked through this trauma and discovered that after this event my ten year old self felt abandoned and displaced, as my role as only son was taken away from me. By age eleven my anxiety had me crippled and I suffered to a great degree.

My brother was stereotypically masculine and bonded very well with my father where I was a lot more gentle and sensitive and had a huge feeling of being 'different'. This led to deep feelings of not being good enough. This trauma, shame and fear became repressed but leaked to the surface as debilitating anxiety which was projected onto many superficial objects and experiences. I became obsessed with hygiene and was terrified of bacteria and dirt and felt everything in my environment was dirty or contaminated. This was a direct projection of my internal state where in fact, it was I that felt contaminated, dirty, different and not good enough.

In the Humanistic model, integration is key to living with anxiety. When I explored and healed the underlying root sources of my anxiety I also took on a holistic approach to my daily life which I discovered was crucial in terms of my healing process. I try to live my life in the present moment as much as possible and I have found mindfulness to be a crucial tool in anxiety management. I exercise daily to burn off adrenaline that builds up from stressors throughout the day and I eat organic foods and limit unhealthy processed foods as much as possible. For me, consuming alcohol initially soothes and brings down arousal and anxiety but when the effects wear off my anxiety and adrenaline levels drastically increased. Alcohol can be a quick fix for stress and anxiety but ultimately makes things a whole lot worse.

This can become a vicious cycle and one I was caught up in for my late teenage years. Some people refer to this increased anxiety after drinking as “The Fear” which can range from unpleasant hyper-arousal to feelings of threat and panic. From my experience I highly recommend limiting alcohol consumption for people who suffer from anxiety and look for healthy alternatives to soothe and ground themselves such as meditation, yoga, any form of exercise, and expression through creativity. Without the proper help and support anxiety can be debilitating, but once we are able to look closely at it, understand it, and to try to integrate it into our lives then real healing can begin.

About the author: 

Ben Collins is a Counsellor / Psychotherapist in Ireland.