All of us are familiar with the experience of being anxious- before a job interview, a first date, or lunch with the boss. A certain level of anxiety- a physical expression of stress- can actually help us to succeed in such situations by focusing our attention and mobilizing energy for a new or important event. However, most of have experienced anxiety when it jangles us and makes our energies feel scattered. Sometimes the anxious experience actually derails our ability to adapt, as when studying for a college test that left us blank, shaky, and sleepless. For most of us, these situations are transient and we recover nicely.
Some individuals have more persistent forms of anxiety that disrupt their lives on a continuing basis. Anxiety can be a fiercely energetic emotional and physical state, causing unsurpassed agitation that leaves those affected feeling drained and impotent.
Severe forms of anxiety are classified as psychiatric disorders and may require medical treatment. This would include Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which can disable a person with intense, uncomfortable, repetitive thoughts followed by behaviors that are senseless, ineffectual, and distressing. For instance, one may have disturbing thoughts of being contaminated or filthy and be compelled to endure seemingly endless cycles of hand washing.
A common diagnosis is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a condition characterized by distressing levels of physically anxious symptoms like elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, light-headedness, which can occur without any apparent, immediate cause. The painfully anxious experience seems to take on a life of its own.
Too commonly, individuals experience Acute Stress Disorder, which can linger as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, on the occasion of an event that has threatened or caused serious bodily injury or threatened death.
While these are formal psychiatric diagnoses that generally benefit from psychiatric treatment, it is also clear that individuals afflicted with anxiety disorders benefit greatly from various forms of psychotherapy. Psychotherapy can help those who experience crippling forms of anxiety to develop ways to manage the intense arousal, to anticipate triggers that worsen the anxiety, and to keep from being overwhelmed by the proliferation of thoughts that sharpen the painful experience.
From the observation of many of us in the mental health profession, social sciences, and the field of philosophy, anxiety- and those other highly energized, negative emotional states, fear and anger- are too commonly experienced in everyday modern life.
Even when our agitation does not rise to the level of a formal diagnosis, we find ourselves rushed, distracted, forgetful, physically tense and uneasy on a daily basis. It diminishes our experience of life dramatically and leaves us with nagging dissatisfaction and a sense that things are not finished, or that some rude surprise will strike at us and rob us of something, maybe our personal power. This is so pervasive that even our youth are impacted by the distress of “not knowing” what to expect next, feeling confused and emotionally overwhelmed.
This form of anxiety, that leaves us so tired and joyless, can be addressed through collaboration with a psychotherapist as well. One can learn how to “slow down to the speed of life” and cease leaning hard into a future moment that has not arrived. Penetrating, insightful conversations that illuminate values, motivations, and choices can help to relieve the unexamined drive that is a part of anxious living. Exercises that let one experience moment-to-moment awareness that is not judgmental or keyed to making something happen. Such mindfulness practices can be embedded in our daily lives so that we can find balance and rest in simple being, rather than constant doing.
My work with anxiety is developed from a clear understanding of the whole of a person’s life, from the overarching conditions that shape it to the particulars of the individual’s thinking style and emotional life. I collaborate with clients to discover the particular avenues that will give rise to change, so that they may have a sense of well being in the course of their lives.
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