From Worrier to Warrior: Overcoming Anxiety
26 March 2018 at 8:13 am
Anxiety is something that pertains to most workplaces. Here, psychologist and behaviourist Adam Blanch offers some advice on what feeling anxious really means.
I have a confession to make. I almost never teach my clients how to reduce their anxiety, even when they come in asking me to.
Like most psychologists I’ve learned the skills of teaching meditation, mindfulness and relaxation, but unless my client is experiencing chronic panic attacks, I almost never use them.
Hang on a minute. Isn’t this what psychologists do? Aren’t they there to help people feel better?
Well, yes, and no. I certainly want my clients to leave therapy feeling good about themselves and their lives, but they usually need to earn it. Let me explain.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety isn’t really a feeling, it’s a physical state, and it has a purpose. The emotion that goes along with anxiety is fear. Fear has a purpose too, it’s meant to alert us to the fact that we are facing some type of risk or threat.
So, fear is useful. It prompts us to pay attention to threats and to do something about them. It’s unpleasant, but it’s meant to be. If fear was a pleasant feeling it would encourage us to do foolish and dangerous things, so we could have more of it.
Anxiety is different. Anxiety is what happens when we are afraid, and we don’t believe we can deal with the threat. To put that another way, it’s the body’s way of responding to the emotion of fear combined with the cognition (thought) that we are incompetent. This combination of fear and low self-efficacy prompts the brain to flood the body with stress hormones to promote radical action.
People respond to threat in four basic ways – fight, flight, appease or freeze. Fight is when you believe you can defeat it and take it on. Flight is when you don’t believe you can beat it and get the heck out of there. People usually appease when they don’t feel confident to fight or able to flee, so they submit to or try to manage the demands of the person threatening them. When people can’t successfully do any of these, and no help is available to them, they will usually “freeze”, otherwise known as dissociating. Dissociation is quite a useful survival strategy as it often leads the predator to losing interest, and if it doesn’t, it protects us psychologically because we are not really “there” to experience the abuse.
Anxiety is part of the freeze response. It leaves us feeling dull, confused, overwhelmed, weak and helpless. The problem is that most people’s anxiety is out of proportion to the threat they are experiencing. Usually, they are not in a life or death situation but are either misperceiving their circumstances as being more dangerous than they really are, or they are misperceiving themselves and being less powerful than they are.
What’s the solution?
That’s why I don’t generally help people reduce their anxiety – it’s a useful symptom of a deeper problem. I don’t want the symptom to go away until the problem has been solved. Instead, I help people to increase their belief in their own competence or to become more competent in their life. Not only does this reduce their anxiety, it improves every other part of their life and they can leave a stronger and happier person.
There are two things I teach my anxious clients. The first is that fear is your friend and you need to listen to what it is telling you. The second is that the cure for fear is often anger. Anger also has purpose, to motivate us to assert our boundaries and attain our goals. Though much maligned, and often misused, anger is the essential emotional energy that drives us to survive and succeed. We call it by other names though – passion, determination, resilience and drive, among others.
Anxiety and anger sit on opposite ends of a see-saw. The less we can access our anger, the more anxious we are going to be. Anger is the emotional equivalent of confidence – it takes on the threat because if feels able to triumph over it. The cognitive part of confidence we call efficacy. It’s our belief in our ability to overcome life’s challenges.
Now, many readers will probably have a negative view of anger, having had it used against them in abusive ways. This happens, buts it’s not really anger’s fault. People who misuse their anger are doing so because of their lack of confidence, which leads to anxiety, which they then overcome with anger. Anger is a bit like a hammer – you can use it to build a house or to assault someone, but the hammer is neutral. Unlike a gun, it was built for creative purposes. The inappropriate use of anger leads to abuse and violence.
But just as problematic is the repression of anger, which creates an unhealthy lack of entitlement and overactive anxiety. Many people who suffer from anxiety issues have repressed their anger and rejected their healthy entitlement to their rights, their boundaries and their goals. So we already have the capacity to overcome our anxiety, it’s just a matter of accessing it.
From Worrier to Warrior: Rosa’s Story
Rosa (not her real name) came to therapy with panic attacks and anxiety that was preventing her from leaving the house without someone to accompany her. She was 34, an accomplished career woman and mother of two thriving children, and she thought that anxiety was something she had left behind a decade ago when she moved to Australia. She was confused about how it could suddenly take her life from her again.
We dug a little deeper and it quickly became clear that her anxiety had arrived on a plane, accompanied by her mother. They were a package deal. Rosa’s mother was what psychologists call “dependent”, which means that her emotional needs are unhealthily fused with her children.
Rosa described a childhood ruled by her mother’s fears and anxieties. She had been bound in a world where she had to be socially perfect, impeccably polite and to be seen to be a high achiever. Over the course of therapy Rosa came to describe herself as a “trophy daughter”, something for her mother to show off to her friends.
By escaping to a place on the planet that was literally as far away as she could get, Rosa had finally been able to explore and establish a sense of self that was her own. She had become confident, competent and self-determining. All of which collapsed at the airport when her mother arrived for a two-month visit. Rosa was once again the disabled little girl who couldn’t get anything right and couldn’t make a simple decision without her mother’s help.
Rosa was two weeks into the visit when I first saw her, with her mother sitting in the waiting room. Over the course of the next six weeks we worked to help Rosa to reclaim her own sense of efficacy, despite the presence of her mother’s constant doubt mongering. Gradually Rosa started to appropriately use her anger to set loving boundaries with her mother and to overcome the guilt messages she had received. This allowed her to validate her own needs and rights and to protect herself against the unwanted intrusions of her mother’s fears and judgements. As she did this her panic attacks stopped and her anxiety faded, leading to a return to her confident self.
Anxiety is a clear sign to us that we feel unable to deal with the threats or pressures that we are facing. In the short term, reducing the symptoms of anxiety can help us to clear our head and focus, but it’s rarely a long-term solution. Anxiety that is responding to real threats is normal and will go away once they have been dealt with. Anxiety that persists over an extended period usually indicates the need to develop either our competence or our self-efficacy so that we can achieve the confidence to face life’s challenges.
About the author: Adam Blanch is a psychologist and behaviourist who provides practical insights and support to strengthen leaders and their teams. He is a practitioner within The Xfactor Collective social impact practitioner community. For more information and contact details visit www.good-psychology.com
Do you have a question for Adam? Adam Blanch writes for Pro Bono News every fortnight. He will be answering all your people and culture questions. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note the views expressed are the opinion of Adam Blanch and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pro Bono Australia, its staff or contributors.