Part of the misconception and confusion of what anxiety really is also comes from the general everyday use of the term. It is often used to define a spectrum of feelings and moods, ranging from feeling scared, anxious before an important event or feeling nervous and agitated. When speaking about anxiety symptoms in psychotherapy and counselling, the term tends to be more narrowly defined.
Individuals who suffer from it usually turn to psychotherapy or counselling when they experience anxiety symptoms on somatic level. This is understandable given that such individuals are used to disregard or ignore their feelings – sometimes up to the point when this process, along with associated feelings, is suppressed. It is only when bodily sensations become a problem that they turn for help.
The most common somatic symptoms are the feeling of fright and flight, sweating, feelings of light-headedness, agitation, palpitation, hyperventilation, nervousness and tension. These bodily symptoms are often accompanied by panic attacks and other symptoms. Such will range from feelings of helplessness, danger, feelings of being on the brim of fainting or suffering from a heart attack. Sometimes so called intrusive thoughts might accompany other anxiety symptoms, along with feelings of something bad and dangerous happening to them.
Often times individuals that feel these symptoms are not able to put a logical source to them. They have a sense of something happening to them which is not in their control and feels as though is not caused by anything specific. This is also why in some cases it can be labelled as generalised anxiety. Nonetheless, anxiety will always have a specific source from which it stems and this source is identified and dealt with in psychotherapy.
(Related reading: Social Anxiety and Social Anxiety Disorder)
What in fact is anxiety?
It will usually occur when a person loses faith in themselves and sees themselves as unable to survive or perform in this world in the way that they see they need to; the way they were taught to. They lose faith in themselves, but not necessarily do they lose their faith in the world. A person finds themselves overwhelmed by their life situation and in general feels they will not be able to cope with it.
Anxious feelings are often accompanied also by disregarding abilities of a person to solve problems in their life. Usually someone who tends to be anxious will predominantly focus on their thinking and behaviour when addressing anxiety, rather than their feelings. This is part of the problem itself.
Anxiety is generally characteristic of individuals with high expectations of themselves. Ones that feel they need to perform to feel good and ones that identify themselves tightly with what they do, how well they do it and what kind of social status or any other social recognition this might give them. Perfection and performance are important to them and their self-esteem will strongly correlate with how well they keep up with their internalised expectations. As long as they keep performing and as long as they can keep identifying with how well they are doing, they will maintain in living a “normal” life.
However, once these concepts are challenged, anxiety often kicks in. As mentioned before, its root cause is usually not know to the person experiencing it. When individual’s concepts of core self are challenged – i.e. the concepts that are so strongly embedded in their sense of self – anxiety will follow. “What am I if I am not as perfect, productive, hard-working, adored I thought I was.”
This is usually accompanied by a person’s suppression of feelings – especially the feelings of fear and scare. When threats to perception of one’s self arise, a person will get scared, which will come out as anxiety. So when thoughts and feelings that one does not identify with come into awareness, this will evoke a sense of danger and fear, which will manifest itself as anxiety. Seeking acceptance and recognition of others by performing or by attaining certain social status and, on the other hand, not getting it will have a similar effect.
Self-doubt and low self-esteem are the backbone of anxiety. Self-doubt will project itself in a person feeling as though others are doubting them and being critical of them. This will in turn increase anxiety due to perception of not being good enough or not performing in a proper manner. The process is usually automated and subconscious. Due to this insecurity, the individual feeling it will not let others close to them. They will build a wall in order not to end up being judged or revealed as not good enough.
With anxious individuals it is the diminished sense of self and feelings of inadequacy that are pushed out of awareness and that will later on manifest itself as anxiety. Such individuals will take criticism as an attack on their core self rather than their actions – precisely because they identify themselves with their actions. As they are criticism, they are exposed to the parts of themselves they in fact deny, distance themselves from them, fear them and consider dangerous – which in turn expresses itself as anxiety.
Thinking, rationalising or working anxiety away
It is a very common misconception that anxiety can be thought or rationalised away. Some tend to consider it as a thought pattern that one can break out of just by changing their way of thinking. People might even go further than that and suggest that one can get rid of it just by changing their everyday behaviour. This is unlikely to be successful – at least not on long-term. This is because of dynamics of anxiety and subconscious elements that it carries. It might be reduced to a certain extent; it might be dealt with for a certain period of time; but its root causes will hardly be eliminated without proper psychotherapy.
Related Reading: Financial Anxiety