Anxiety is a symptom – not a disease
We have just had Mental Health Awareness Week. There have been lots of conversations about mental health out there on social media, which is brilliant. Many people have been really brave and shared their own personal experiences of mental health. One of the hot topics has been anxiety. Anxiety is the number one symptom in the clients that I see in my Analytical Hypnotherapy practice. Some would say that there is an epidemic in terms of anxiety and depression in society and the world today.
What I find really frustrating about the conversation and discussion around anxiety and mental health in general is the heavy focus on the symptom. Anxiety is not in and of itself a disease or disorder. It is a symptom. When we focus on the symptom, it means that we are missing the underlying problem. When we approach someone in a symptom-focused way, it means that we are missing the opportunity to really look at what is going on for them and resolving their distress at the root cause.
With the example of anxiety, if we consider that feeling to be the problem then implicitly the message that we are sending to the person suffering with anxiety is that they are somehow “wrong” to feel that way, that they should not feel anxious and that the feeling itself is the problem. We live in a society that is pro positive thinking, which is great in some instances. However, we must also understand that “negative” feelings are part of the human experience and are actually really important. They are a part of our spectrum of emotions that are designed to work within the whole of our mental, emotional and physical system.
So, this approach of focusing on managing your symptoms, such as with relaxation and breathing (which can be useful), or drugs that switch off that feeling, may imply that the person is wrong to feel that way in the first place. It implies there is a dysfunction there. However, anxiety is part of our normal human response. This symptom-focused approach also simply does not go deep enough. This narrow approach completely misses the opportunity to see the real problem. The symptom itself is not the problem it is alerting us to a deeper emotional pain. What nobody seems to be asking is “why?”. Why has this feeling of anxiety been triggered? What could have happened to make this person feel this way?
To illustrate this, I will give you an example taken from an amalgamation of different clients to remove identifying features and maintain confidentiality.
An 18-year-old girl was about to go off to University. She was incredibly sporty; training in athletics and was due to study Sports Science. She was heading for a career as a professional athlete. She presented with panic attacks that did not present in the classical way. She went to her GP and said that she did not feel well. The GP focused on the physical symptoms and sent her to hospital for a range of tests. There was frightening talk of cardiac issues, life-limiting illnesses, and no future for her as an athlete.
However, the myriad of tests did not find any physical issue, so she was discharged back to the GP, who then recognised and diagnosed anxiety and panic attacks. She was then prescribed an antidepressant. She was never asked about what was going on for her or if there had been any significant events in her life. The type of antidepressant that she was prescribed was an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor). For adolescents and young people, one of the known side-effects of SSRIs is an increase in suicidal thoughts and an increase in suicidal behaviour. This is a very serious drug and starting on it is not a decision to be taken lightly. However, the GP simply prescribed the SSRI and sent her off on her way.
When she came to see me for Analytical Hypnotherapy, the background that came out very quickly was that she had been living in a situation of domestic violence with her Mum and siblings. They had had to leave very quickly, and were moved to a different part of the country. She had left all of her friends and life behind, had no contact with anyone, and was living in a refuge. So yes – she was feeling anxious and was having panic attacks! I don't think you need to be a therapist to see quite clearly that anxiety and panic was a normal response to the situation and trauma that she had experienced. During Analytical Hypnotherapy, we did not focus on the symptom. I didn’t spend the time teaching her relaxation and breathing because it was not going to help her address the underlying problem. For this young woman, what she needed was help to process those very traumatic experiences that she had been through, experiences which had taken place over a period of time.
What happens when you are exposed to experiences or relationships that cause anxiety, is that your limbic system (see last week’s blog for more on the limbic system) behaves like an internal alarm system. It sets off your flight/flight/freeze stress response. A response designed to ensure your survival when a threat is detected. When something happens that makes you feel threatened or anxious, if at the time you are able to discharge those feelings and resolve it then that is fine. Your limbic system can stand down from high alert, but if those threatening things happen repeatedly it has an accumulative effect. Your internal alarm system should just be set so that if a burglar smashes a window and comes in the alarm system will go off. What can happen with anxiety is that it is like your alarm system has been set to a much lower tolerance level. In order to attempt to protect you it has become so sensitive that even if a tiny ant came crawling across the ground, your alarm system would be going off.
We can reset your alarm system back to where it should be, not by ignoring those feelings, or saying that you should not be having those feelings, or trying to suppress those feelings with a drug, but by actually working with them and asking the question “why?”. I do not mean that in a simplistic way as there may not be one specific causative event. Usually, it is more complex than that and there has been a series of events that have happened. Also, I have never worked with a client to date where anxiety is the only symptom. There may also be anger, guilt, a whole range of emotions that need to be processed and worked through. This needs to be worked through at a deeper level – not with the intellect but deep within the limbic system, which is what we do in Analytical Hypnotherapy.
For Mental Health Awareness Week, what I would really like people to start doing is asking questions. Ask “why?” on a deeper level and know there is nothing defective in you. Whatever emotions or symptoms that you are experiencing, they are a normal human response. It is the mind responding normally and trying to process, resolve and protect you. Work with your feelings not against them and you will be amazed at the results.
If you have any questions, struggling with something and not sure about the best approach or how Analytical Hypnotherapy could help then email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Facebook @KirstyWickHypnotherapy. You can also find lots of information on the website www.kirstywick.co.uk.
Want to learn more? Check out my weekly Facebook live #thursdaytherapy every Thursday at 1pm here on the Kirsty Wick Analytical Hypnotherapy page @kirstywickhypnotherapy. Each week I chat about therapy, without the jargon, and look at different techniques, tools, share information and look at specific issues such as anxiety, relationships, self-esteem and confidence. Get in touch with any question you would like answered or an issue you are struggling with.