Most of us will experience anxiety at some point in our lives, but for many of us it can be a constant state of being, affecting the quality of our lives, including our relationships and our ability to enjoy life. Anyone with anxiety knows how frustrating it is when our loved ones say “just relax”, or “stop worrying so much”. For people with anxiety this is not possible, if it were they would have done it a long time ago. Telling someone who suffers from anxiety to “just relax” is like telling someone who is has diabetes to “just metabolize carbohydrates”. The person who suffers from anxiety has neurotransmitters sending messages to their brains and bodies that they are in danger. They are stuck in the fight, flight, or freeze response; even though their rational mind may be able to understand that they are safe they cannot relax.
The roots of anxiety vary for different people. Genetics, trauma, insecure attachment with one’s primary caregiver as an infant, diet, imbalance in the gut biome, PTSD, isolation and lack of social support, and poverty to name a few. When treating anxiety, it is important to address the current situational component, process past traumas, create healthy behavioral changes, and communicate to the body that you are indeed safe.
As a therapist working with individuals who suffer from anxiety I use a number of tools. The first is to develop a trusting rapport and an understanding of the unique person who sits before me. It is challenging for many people with anxiety to feel okay in a new environment and with a new person; many are hypervigilant and concerned that they may be misunderstood or judged. Developing a trusting professional relationship that allows my clients to be authentic and receive unconditional positive regard is the foundation with which the rest of treatment relies on.
After establishing a trusting relationship, I help clients explore the roots of their anxiety and areas of their current life that could be smoothed out in order to create more balance. Establishing new behavioral patterns and healthy lifestyles takes work; I help clients create SMART (simple, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely) goals to work on each week. Accomplishing these small goals gives the client confidence to attain larger goals and at the same time gradually creates long-term healthy lifestyle changes. It usually takes three weeks for neuronal pathways to get firmly established when starting a routine. After three weeks, these new behaviors become ingrained.
I also teach clients how to use the practice of mindfulness to manage their anxiety. Mindfulness practice allows clients to observe their thoughts, emotions, and body sensations objectively. As humans, we have a constant stream of thoughts going through our brains. Some of these thoughts are old patterns stemming from childhood that do not serve us today. Self-defeating thoughts lead to painful emotions and body sensations. Mindfulness can be used to identify these thoughts as merely thoughts before they cascade into fear and anxiety.
Living with anxiety is hard. It is important for those who suffer from anxiety to be aware that there are effective tools to work with. It takes some practice and commitment to learn to manage anxiety but it is well worth the effort.