Let’s say on more days than not you feel pretty good about yourself and how you do in most areas of your life. Then one day, you struggle, perhaps at work, perhaps under pressure from a boss who expects more of you at times than you feel capable of achieving. The stress can be overwhelming. On the way home that day the elevator feels particularly confining and the freeway traffic is more irritating than usual, in part because when it stops you feel trapped too far from the next exit. You can’t sleep that night because your heart races and your thoughts are dominated by efforts to figure our out how to solve the problem that came down earlier in the day.
Each of these symptoms can be understood within the broad category of what we call “anxiety.” We throw the word around a lot, but what does it really mean in a psychological sense? Anxiety means more than just the symptoms you feel, though that list is long, including phobias (ex: afraid of flying, elevators, or leaving the house), obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors (ex: counting steps, hand washing), physiological reactions (ex: feeling flushed, racing heart, sweating, dizziness, difficulty sleeping), generic fears (of losing control or going crazy), performance, social and separation anxieties, and the granddaddy of them all, post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Different people are inclined to express their anxiety in different ways and to vastly different degrees.
Some understand anxiety symptoms as fear turned inward. But your anxiety thinks it’s being your friend by trying to keep you safe — anxiety issues are all about feeling in control. Some anxieties are what we would call situational, such as a mandatory performance or project, the evaluation of which is out of your control. Some anxiety we would consider chronic. This is common for those who have had neglect or abuse in their lives, and some of this may be unconscious, meaning that sometimes you’re not even sure what you’re frightened about that’s causing the anxiety symptoms. This is especially distressful, because how can you take control of a situation when you aren’t even sure what it’s about?
Your distress means that you are struggling alone, but you don’t have to. Therapy can help you identify your anxiety triggers and acknowledge anxiety’s good intentions to protect you. You and your therapist can identify real solutions for managing or eliminating it.
Guest post by Joanne Weidman, M.S., M.F.T.