Oftentimes even when our rational mind is aware that there is no danger, our emotional brain, which is evolutionarily older, behaves as though we are in constant peril. This part of the brain developed when we were in a context where we had to be on constant alert in order to survive, however even though our modern world is not full of the same threats, the architecture of the brain has not caught up. So now instead of fearing threats to survival that we face in the world, the brain can simulate scenarios that provoke our anxiety at any time. Anxiety is not inherently bad, as often it serves an important adaptive function of keeping us safe, but when it is out of proportion to our current reality, it can lead to significant distress.
These scenarios can include fears of the worst happening to loved ones, fears of engaging in social situations, or a general sense of dread for the future. They may replay as though on a loop, continuously activating stress-response circuitry in the brain and keeping the mind and body on high alert.
Often because of the distress this causes, people develop ways of coping that may work in the short term but may not necessarily benefit their well-being in the long run. Counselling can help teach you ways of coping with anxiety in addition to exploring the root causes of why the anxiety developed in the first place and working through these issues.
Generalized anxiety is the experience of fear, dread, or anxiety directed not just towards one specific scenario or thought but rather to a range of different things. It can often involve fears of the unknown, worry about the future, and ruminating on a number of different issues without feeling like one can manage or control the worry.
Social anxiety can range from a fear of public speaking to a sense of dread over even the smallest interactions with others. Fears of being negatively evaluated or acting inappropriately around others make avoiding all interactions a tempting option but one that results in a profound sense of isolation and disconnection. Often beneath the anxiety and fear their lies a deeper sense of inadequacy or shame.
Panic attacks are a terrifying experience where one experiences an intense surge of fear or anxiety that typically peaks within minutes but can feel unbearable. In these instances, the body behaves as though it is in true peril, producing symptoms like a rapid heart rate, quick shallow breathing, tingling sensations, trembling, dizziness, dissociation and more. In this state, people often fear losing control or even dying, and although panic attacks are not physically dangerous, this experience is extremely uncomfortable and can often lead to ongoing fear of more panic attacks happening which may be reacted to by avoiding situations thought to provoke them.
How can counselling help?
The experience of anxiety can be very scary and destabilizing, so understandably it is often reacted to by the employment of strategies to distract or avoid feeling it. Emotion-focused therapy aims to disarm these defenses in a gentle and caring manner to access the underlying feelings that may have previously felt too threatening to experience fully. By processing these deeper feelings in the context of a trusting relationship, new ways of feeling can start to emerge.
Cognitive-behavioural therapy employs strategies to begin incrementally exposing yourself to the previously fear-engendering situations and thoughts, so they begin to be more tolerable. Thoughts and beliefs associated with the anxiety are questioned so as to introduce new, more adaptive ways of thinking and behaving.
Mindfulness-based approaches such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) advocate for a new way of engaging with the thoughts, feelings, and sensations of anxiety wherein instead of fearing or avoiding them, you learn to sit with them and even befriend them so they begin to have less of a grip on your life. Meditation and an attitude of acceptance are cultivated to allow anxiety to stop being an obstacle to living a life that is in line with what you value and find important.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
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