Anxiety, panic and insecurity
Many people suffer from anxiety or panic, or tend to get filled with worries, insecurity, self-doubt and a lack of self-confidence. The experiences of anxious states can be debilitating and stressful, and make you feel powerless and frustrated. It can feel like a mixture of being restless, tense and very cramped, with a tight or heavy chest that’s hard to breathe into. I teach people tools that can help to change this experience and help stop you being ruled by it. We work on two levels that are interconnected. One is looking at how anxiety, panic or insecurity appear in your life today, noticing how you experience them, and learning how to change this. It’s a bit like re-wiring your responses. The second level is learning how those experiences are connected to experiences in your past, and learning how to process and let go of them.
We ‘re-wire’ your responses in a very physically oriented way. We work with noticing how you are reacting on a physical level when you are worried, anxious or panicked: for example becoming frozen, stuck, or tense as if ready to spring. We don’t always notice how we react physically, but it is always there. This is because agitated, anxious states involve activation of our unconscious fear responses, sometimes (okay, often) in situations where they’re not really called for. It’s as if the fight-or-flight fear systems are stuck “on”.
Through combining talk with body attention, we notice a second level: how that physical experience automatically comes together with the thoughts and feelings that drive your anxiety: believing you won’t manage, worrying about what will happen, believing people don’t like you and will leave/reject you.
We also notice a third level: how you respond to those fears. This might be trying to be strong and show that no-one can hurt you, being extremely alert to the surroundings, trying to disappear and be quiet, trying to keep everything in control. These levels of experience all happen at the same time. Describing them from different points of view helps us have more ways of learning to shift out of that state.
Because anxious, agitated states involve our unconscious brains and their fear systems, working with the body is an extremely valuable part of any approach to changing our psychology. By working with sensations, we can change the way those brain areas are functioning. Using mainly talk and sometimes touch, I guide you to shift your physical experience out of your anxious experience into other ones instead. Perhaps it helps you to notice your legs. Perhaps it helps when you can relax your neck. We are looking for ways to calm down your nervous system, to switch the alarm off and allow you to feel relaxed and safe. Shifting out of the experience is a bit like developing your resources. We don’t want you to just stop doing the strategies you’ve always used and then feel too vulnerable and afraid. We need a sense that you have other tricks up your sleeve.
When you make those steps out of the experience, we will probably encounter other feelings coming up. We could call these old feelings, or perhaps feelings you’ve usually tried to avoid. You might feel a wave of relief or joy, or you might feel the not-so-comfortable emotions: fear, vulnerability, anger or sadness. The body has a funny way of storing feelings, so that when you let go of a way you reacted many times, others tend to come out. I structure my sessions so that we only encounter these feelings in small doses. I don’t want them to overwhelm you.
I help you to go through those feelings, which you need to get through in order to stop being stuck in anxiety. When you allow yourself to experience them, they don’t actually last very long, and soon change into something else; they are transient. Through allowing those feelings in the sessions, they can stop being so threatening and having power over you. It’s a bit like draining something away. In terms of neuroscience, it’s like re-wiring your brain so that you don’t so easily fire the fear response of the amygdala and other unconscious brain areas. We are gradually developing your ability to be in particular situations and to not be overloaded by your emotional response, but to let whatever emotions are there roll through. This is what psychologists refer to as resilience.
The feelings that come up are also often feelings that were present in the past, but which were either never completed or which you never fully experienced. When we are afraid, we need afterwards to relax in safety in order for our nervous systems to come back to normal. For animals, this involves standing and shaking, to release the excess charge in the tensed muscles. But we humans often stay partly stuck in our fight-or-flight fear state. In sessions, letting go of that fight-or-flight tension often involves experiencing this ‘old’ fear as if it is very present. It can even involve feeling a light trembling or shaking in your body. This is part of getting to the feeling of relaxed safety that was never achieved before, like completing a past trauma that you never fully let go of, even if it had seemed rationally as though you already had. It can allow you to feel more grounded and confident.