Fear: From Caution and Worry to Anxiety and Panic
When does Fear cross over from being a useful function of survival to a paralyzing obstacle? This threshold is different for everyone, which makes working with anxiety and fear a very personal process. We not only experience fear differently, but we express (or don't express) feelings of fear in varied ways as well.
For some, worry shows up as tension in the neck, back of head, jaws and face. For some stressed anxiety shows up as knots in the stomach. Many people notice their breath being short and shallow. Forms of fear or anxiety can live as a vague sense of ‘something isn’t right’, or can burst into an overwhelming panic that we are not safe in our body or our surroundings. It can live as an underlying push to stay in motion, stay busy, stay preoccupied, even stay overwhelmed. But why?
Much like depression, I believe anxiety functions to bring our attention to parts of us that need it. ‘Ebullition’ is a word that means to bubble, or boil. It is also used to metaphorically describe the process of emotional release. This use of the word brings to mind the image of emotional memories or experiences, like bubbles, rising up from the storehouse of the unconscious (and some –myself included-- would say at least part of this unconscious storehouse is the body itself). What happens when we try to keep them from surfacing? Often, new bubbles continue to rise and begin to build up. Can you imagine the energy it takes to hold down, or repress, years of emotion? Not only is it exhausting, but it is also frightening (anxiety). We know, on some level, that there is a lot of energy pushing to come through, but the bigger or longer that force builds up, the more frightening the prospect of letting go is.
Feeling Safe and Contained
It is possible to forcibly reinforce our control over these bubbles of emotion by way of medication. Anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications help to contain or “compress” our feelings so that they are not so present in our experience. But, medication does not distinguish “good” feelings from “bad” feelings. All feelings are compressed. No intense lows, and no intense highs. For some, this seems to be the most helpful and immediate way to regain basic functionality in their lives so they can survive. For others, the flattening of emotion feels dull, and they are left with a sense that the underlying problem is still there, and is still “asking” for attention.
Another kind of container for feeling is the therapeutic relationship and session. A therapeutic relationship is one that proves itself to be safe and kind, trustworthy, skilled and confidential: contained (this is not every therapist; finding the right fit is crucial). The session is contained in a set amount of time, in a set and familiar place. With these pieces of the therapeutic container in place, people often feel safe enough to explore expressing and understanding the emotional “bubbles” that need release. By slowly and methodically releasing these emotions, the pressure of anxiety can lessen, and work to understand and process the source of the “bubbles” can come into focus.
Some traumatic experiences leave their mark with us for life. But, being aware of how those experiences have impacted us (for example what things trigger feelings of fear, and why) enables us to develop more control over how we react to those triggers. Having this kind of awareness also allows us to develop the most effective ways of coping with reactions of fear when they arise.
You Are Not Alone
Perhaps most importantly, developing a relationship with our fears includes a process of releasing shame about how we feel. The addition of harsh self-judgment and frustration to the already debilitating experience of fear makes attacks of anxiety and panic doubly horrible to go through. Often, just the release of shame and negative self-talk about feeling fear is a huge relief.
I remember my surprise when I first experienced panic attacks and started talking to people about it: everyone and their brother had had a panic attack! I couldn’t believe that I had never even heard about them before, and definitely hadn’t heard anyone talking about them openly.
It is a sad fact that most, if not all, people experience something traumatic or scary in their lives. A big difference among people is in how they relate (consciously or unconsciously) with that experience, and ones that remind them of it, for the rest of their life.
You Do Have A Choice
Whether you have an old habit of worrying and want to feel more confident in your day to day choices, or you have debilitating PTSD that replays an unsafe past over and over in your present, bringing awareness and compassion to bear on how you feel in a safe and contained way can help.
I work with anxiety by first offering various relaxation techniques often involving breathwork and guided imagery. Sessions may begin by getting you relaxed and feeling safe enough to notice what you are feeling. These exercises can continue to serve you whenever you need them. I often slow down our conversation and focus in on certain feelings and images to encourage mindfulness and a deeper awareness of what patterns of belief are contributing to experiencing fear and anxiety in daily situations.
In this work, I also rely on the wisdom of the body and notice its language in your story. Sometimes it tells me about the fear and stress you are holding before you even sit down. I have a deep respect for the expertise of your body and how it has been serving to protect you in the best way it has known how. For some, just acknowledging the fear their muscles are holding can provide a huge shift in perspective, especially for those who recognize and claim that they are no longer unsafe.
I tailor my support to complement your personal history and current circumstances. With that support in place, we can work to discover what your short term and long term goals are in releasing anxiety, what connections need to be made to understand patterns of anxiety as they show up in your life, and what knots may need untangling to move forward.
Courage: Take a Chance
If you are ready to move forward in a gentle, safe and contained way, I invite you to call me for a free, 15-minute phone consultation at (720) 446-9076 to discuss my practice, your concerns and how anxiety treatment counseling can help you.