Chiswick Herald article on anxiety
Anxiety is one of the main emotions people bring to therapy.
When I first meet people and I ask “How is it that you are here?” they often tell me they are feeling anxious. The experience of anxiety is one that can be so painful and confusing we naturally tend to look outside of ourselves for help in again finding a way forward. In other words we are no longer finding it possible to approach our situation philosophically.
In my view, our tendency to blame ourselves for having become anxious feeds a sense of isolation and loneliness; one which helps prevent us from harnessing our innate abilities to again find a way to reassure ourselves and find calm and serenity. And of course any pattern of thinking that encourages us to think negatively will only escalate how badly we are feeling. We can feel sad about feeling sad, anxious about feeling anxious, confused by our confusion, lost in our lostness; I think you get the point.
To break the cycle we need to do something differently that results in us again feeling some hope and enables us to again engage with our innate philosophical potential. After all, and to allow us a brief moment of philosophical thinking, to feel anxious means that at some point we did not feel anxious? And to approach philosophically the point at which this changed is where we will find the information we need to again find our way. But how?
We need to find a calm disposition and secondly foster a curiosity towards our situation.
When people come to see me it will become apparent very quickly as to whether meeting with me has the potential to be helpful; whether we can develop a therapeutic relationship. In the first session the single most important factor determining the potential outcome for us is how the person feels in spending that first fifty minutes with me. Do they feel relaxed, are they feeling free to speak openly to me, do they feel heard and understood by me? Is there a glimmer of hope that has surfaced as a result of us meeting? Are my questions or questions that are occurring in them encouraging them to think about things in a new way? The therapeutic relationship is the foundation of healing and research has repeatedly shown that for many, a relationship where the person has felt safe, cared for, heard and understood has been what has mattered most.
And as suggested earlier the second aspect of a philosophical approach is being able to think clearly about our situation. When young, we quickly learn through the use and questioning of the information our senses provide. Our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations are converted into information that enables us to understand the world when we also ask when? where? who? what? how? and why? And this learning forms the basis of how we make decisions. As we go through life we will automatically respond to situations that we understand as familiar bypassing any great contemplation of our senses or any rigorous questioning.
This all works fine until the situations are in fact not similar enough that an automatic response is the best choice. Our context may have changed, and/or we may have changed, either way a response that always used to result in a positive outcome is resulting in a negative outcome. We try again and again and that only leads to us feeling anxious. What we missed at the moment when our choice did not provide the outcome we expected was the need to remember that everything changes. And with change comes the need for us to be prepared to accept that the things we have come to expect as certain may need us to revisit them.
Create the space to ask yourself the question “what do I want right now?”
We have an innate ability to decide what we need in any situation but we can develop bad habits of either censoring our replies or conversely not taking time to think through the consequences of doing what we want. When we ask ourselves the question “What do I want?” approach whatever comes to you with curiosity and kindness. Imagine you are listening to your best friend and how you would respond then. For example, what you might think is “I want to get away” - don’t dismiss it immediately as impossible, but also rushing to book a one way plane ticket is probably equally unhelpful. Instead take your response seriously and then negotiate with yourself until you find a solution that is workable.
The ease with which we can do this alone depends upon many things but I think that if you are not finding a way to feel calm and that as a result you may not be finding it possible to think clearly then do not punish yourself for feeling this way. Be as kind and compassionate as you would be to the person you care for most in life. After all, surely you would tell them that they deserve help, that it is ok to sometimes need to seek help, that they do not need to feel alone? And once you no longer feel alone and you are again able to access the full potential of your curiosity you will again find your way.