Therapy for Anxiety

“The most intense conflicts, if overcome, leave behind a sense of security and calm which is not easily disturbed.” — C.G. Jung

Stress and anxiety are normal aspects of daily life. But sometimes, anxieties and fears become overwhelming. When anxiety is present most of the time, or it intensifies into phobias, panic attacks, insomnia or continuous worry, it’s time to consider seeking help.

Therapy is effective in dealing with anxiety and can often eliminate the need for medication, while empowering the person with ways of maintaining inner calm long after treatment has ended.

Few states are as difficult to live with as anxiety. Our bodies have a biological response that is impossible to ignore: our hands sweat, our hearts race, our stomachs turn over, our shoulders knot up. We may feel dizzy or have trouble breathing and a sense of impending doom makes it hard to focus on anything positive. Trying to calm down, or knowing that the fear is irrational, does nothing to help. This is the state of ‘fight of flight,’ a natural condition for escaping physical danger, but very problematic if we are not physically threatened. The body becomes revved up and the mind races from one fear to the next. If this state persists, it can lead to problems with health, relationships and job performance.

Some of us seem to be hardwired to be more anxious than others. Such people may be insecure, perfectionistic, highly sensitive to criticism, driven to succeed, or compelled to feel in control of events. At other times, tendencies toward anxiety can be the residue of past traumas or hurts. Regardless of how and where your anxiety originated, you are not doomed to suffer with anxiety for life. Therapy can help you to create a calmer and more peaceful life.

My Approach to Anxiety

Anxiety has both physical and psychological aspects and both must be addressed. We might begin with some practical calming methods to help relieve immediate distress. Although anxiety is an internal process, it is often a response to overwhelming external situations. Together we will work to identify and resolve any situations that are increasing your anxiety. Additionally, we can explore the meaning and potential purpose embedded in the anxiety symptoms.

From a Jungian perspective, anxiety symptoms are trying to tell us that something is out of balance. Rather than kill the messenger, by trying to suppress the symptoms with medication or self medicating with alcohol, smoking, overeating, etc, we can consider the underlying message of the anxiety. Viewed in this way, the anxiety symptoms can become a guide to understand aspects of our life that are no longer working. It sometimes takes anxiety to propel us out of situations that we have outgrown and toward healthier, more satisfying choices. When we address the causes of the anxiety, we gain understanding and the power to live a fuller, more balanced life.

Here are some immediate steps to lower anxiety:

  1. Breathe:
    Deep diaphragmatic breathing (or yoga breathing) is a powerful anxiety-reducing technique because it activates the body’s relaxation response. It helps the body go from the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system to the relaxed response of the parasympathetic nervous system. Try slowly inhaling to a count of four, filling your belly first and then your chest, gently holding your breath to a count of four, and slowly exhaling to a count of four. Repeat this several times.
  2. Get moving:
    The physical state of fight or flight is designed to propel us into action, to make us literally run away from a physical threat or, if we can’t escape, to fight our way out of danger. In times of anxiety, all body systems gear up for physical action and that action does release the anxiety to some degree. If you are feeling overly anxious, move. Walk briskly, run, go to the gym. Turn that adrenalin into movement and you will get some immediate, short-term relief.
  3. Change the channel:
    During anxiety, the mind races with “what ifs” and worst case scenarios. If the mind were a TV, we would be stuck on the anxiety channel. It can help to simply change the channel by shifting the focus of your attention. Call a friend and ask about them (don’t keep talking about what is making you anxious, it will only make your anxiety worse). Get busy with a chore or job. Go to a movie. Play a computer game. Find something that is engrossing and use it to shift the focus from unhelpful rumination to positive action.
  4. Face your fear:
    If you are dreading a certain task or challenging situation, lean into it. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and then think of how you will cope with that. Most people who are trying to help a person with anxiety do so by reassuring them that everything will be fine. This almost never works. Anxious people know that it will probably be fine, but then again it might not. It’s far more helpful to lean into the fear and develop a plan to cope. If you can live with your coping plan (even though you hope it doesn’t come to that), then maybe you can live with the fear.
  5. Use your powerful imagination – for good:
    Most people who are prone to anxiety have strong powers of imagination. They are extremely talented at imagining all the terrible things that could happen, all the many ways things could go wrong. One way of reducing anxiety is to use your creative imagination to help yourself. During periods of anxiety, it is almost impossible to imagine yourself into calmness by thinking good thoughts or holding a soothing image. But you can make use of others to help you, right in the privacy of your own home. Creative visualization is the practice of using your imagination to help yourself. I strongly recommend downloading one or more visualizations to help in times of high anxiety or difficulty sleeping. Not all visualizations are well done. Some of the best can be found here.