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Thursday, 20 September 2012

Anxiety and How to Cope With It

Anxiety seems to be everywhere in the West and indeed, in the Handbook of Social Psychology, RR Willoughby described Anxiety as “the most prominent mental characteristic of Occidental Society.”  I think that’s true.  

It’s important first to differentiate between fear and anxiety.  Most of us mix the two up – and they can overlap – one can feel both fear and anxiety for something.  But there is a difference between the two which most of us understand on some subconscious if not conscious level.  Psychologists and philosophers including (unsurprisingly) Freud, have discussed the difference, and it seems to come down to this: anxiety is to do with inner feelings and fear to do with objective outer things.  In battle or faced with a tiger you will probably show fear; when giving a speech or thinking about a driving test or meeting a prospective new girlfriend or boyfriend, you feel anxiety.

Anxiety is more difficult to deal with than fear.  Anxious situations may not be as bad as battle or a rampaging tiger, but with those we get to act instantly.  We can fight, freeze or run, and then it’s all over (hopefully we are still alive!).  With anxiety we have time to dwell, to worry, to concern ourselves with whether we are going to get things right or are good enough.  Anxiety sticks around longer, becomes a pattern of behaviour and tends to eat away at us from the inside, which can feel paralysing and like an attack by the self on the self.

The philosopher Kierkegaard said that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”   By this he meant that it’s the flip side of the good things and choices we have - when you have no choice, for instance faced with the tiger, you aren’t anxious.  It’s the things that we do have a choice about but would rather not do, or at least would rather breeze through, that cause us anxiety.  

For all of these reasons, anxiety trends to be more corrosive than fear, and harder to master, since it seems like an attack on the self from within.  Therapies like CBT can be great for conquering fears as a new response can be found to work around the symptom – eg a phobia of spiders - but it’s harder to work at something that affects you more deeply, that seems ingrained within your very self: when the thing you “fear” is yourself and your response, that’s really anxiety, not fear at all.  You need a deeper way of dealing with it and something like CBT just won’t do it.

The silver lining is that both fear and anxiety have their uses.  They are guides to what is going on for us.  If you didn’t feel fear when faced with a tiger or in a battle, the chances are you’d get killed pretty quickly.  Courage is not absence of fear.  As Aristotle said, brave people are afraid, but overcome their fear.  A phobia of spiders or snakes is based on something that may have happened when you were small or on the fact that these creatures can indeed be harmful to us.  We can learn the correct response for dealing with them.

Anxiety tells us that we are uncomfortable with a future situation and that we need to prepare for it.  If you are anxious about something, it’s a sign that it is important for you, either consciously or subconsciously.  We don’t get anxious about things which are trivial to us.  When it comes, a rise in adrenaline can be useful, depending on the extent of it. 

How Can I Deal with Anxiety? 

Dealing with anxiety takes time.  Fears and Phobias can be conquered and we’ve all met or heard of people who’ve achieved that.  Anxiety is much tougher to deal with.  It is part of the human condition - you can reduce it and learnt to live with it, but you almost certainly can’t eliminate it completely.  Once you know that anxiety is universal and that you can’t get rid of it completely, then paradoxically, this is one of the things that helps to lessen it.  

I have a lot of people who visit me about anxiety and I find that they are helped by working through their feelings and responses about what makes them anxious.   Ways can be found to help people cope and work on their anxiety.  The first and possibly most important method is the simplest.  It is amazing how once you start to talk about it, that in itself will help tremendously – the mere sharing and unburdening yourself of it, and finding out that you are not alone.  As Carl Rogers said, “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.  I believe that I have learnt this from my clients as well as within my own experiences – that we cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are.”

Although I could mention many ways, I will just quickly list a few other approaches here:

1.       It’s useful to ask “which is worse, not doing the thing I am anxious about or the anxiety itself?” Almost always, not doing the thing is worse, because we tend to get anxious about important things.  This can spur you on to be determined to beat the anxiety.
2.       You are not your anxiety, so you can learn to observe it and to be aware of it and think of it as a thing separate from you, not part of you. 
3.       Similarly, the zen method, allows for the universality and natural nature of anxiety.  Jon Kabat-Zinn highlights this in his book Full Catastrophe Living:

“The best way of looking into them (discomfort, pain, worry) is to welcome them when they come rather than trying to make them go away because we don't like them. By sitting with some discomfort and accepting it as part of our experience in the moment, even if we don't like it, which we don't, we discover that it is actually possible to relax into physical discomfort."

4.       Instead of fighting the anxiety and tensing up, you can learn to accept it and be with it.  If you tense up, your breathing becomes shallow and your body sends emergency signals to your brain and it just gets worse.  If you are already tense with anxiety, fighting it makes you tense about the tension.  Noticing it and saying, “Oh well, I’m anxious again.  So be it,” is better.
5.       You can talk over the things that give you most anxiety with a counsellor.  Often there may be something stuck in your past that is causing the reaction.  By revisiting and feeling the pain of the past situation, you can help to clear it.  A skilled listener will support and guide you through this without turning the agenda (like many friends would) onto themselves.
6.       You can remember that the other side to anxiety is a positive one.  You are more bodily aware than people who suffer less anxiety.  This can have advantages that can lead to a lot of fun!
7.       You can try think of the anxiety as if it were happening to someone else.  What would you advise them to do in this situation?  This calm, logicality can help soothe things down.
8.       Many people find it very productive to work through, in counselling, the approach of Claire Weekes. In her excellent book, Self Help for Your Nerves, she talks about doing four things – Facing, Accepting, Floating, Letting Time Pass.  She had amazing results with this simple method and I find it works very well with many people.
9.       You can learn to let anxiety out via your body.  We do carry a great deal of it around in our bodies as there are many ways of releasing most of it – through breathing exercises, for instance.
10.   Think of your purpose and meaning in life.  Does it require doing the thing that you’re anxious about?  What happens when you are gone from this world and you can’t do it?  The idea of death often puts things in perspective and helps us to act.

David is a fully qualified and BACP registered Person Centred Counsellor.  If you wish to talk about anxiety in your life, you can book a session with him, either face to face or via telephone or skype, by ringing 07578 100256 or emailing him at

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