Dear Dr. C.,
Basically, on one level, there’s nothing wrong with my life. I’m a 55 year old divorced woman (no children) who has a good career, a nice apartment, a dog that is my best friend. Sure, there are things I’d like to have that I don’t have. I’d like a loving partner, for example (I haven’t had sex in a loooong time!) I’d like to pay off my credit cards. I wish I had more time to do some things I should be doing like yoga or meditation. But basically these are minor complaints. Generally, I’m quite ok.
My problem is that I often feel a state of anxiety and fear. I worry all the time. I am afraid that something bad will happen. I always expect the worst and the tiniest thing can trigger it. Even when I’m in my own home, perfectly safe, there is a feeling in the pit of my stomach and I feel like I want to throw up. I am afraid of the silliest things. On Sundays, I’m afraid of going to work on Monday. I’m afraid of new situations. Sometimes, for weeks on end I lose my appetite. I’ve talked to my doctor and she gave me antidepressants but they didn’t really do anything. In fact, they were awful. Some days I’m actually suicidal because I hate the feeling so much (although I know that is something I would never do!) But I just don’t know what to do with all this angst. Any suggestions?
I am very familiar with this one, having dealt with anxiety and fear most of my life. It also is one of the big issues with many clients in my private practice here in Victoria.
So, your problem is not uncommon and in fact, anxiety and fear are normal. Anxiety becomes a disorder when the symptoms become chronic and interfere with our daily lives and our ability to function. It sounds like this might be the case for you.
There are many dimensions to anxiety/ fear and I can’t deal with them at a very deep level in this blog. But, hopefully I can point you in some direction that will be helpful and you can see if there’s anything you want to explore.
For myself, despite years of yoga and other relaxation techniques, I was not able to really learn to manage fear until I was able to contextualize it in a bigger picture and realize that something was working itself out even if I didn’t know what it was.
Some years back, I was living in a Buddhist monastery, exploring whether or not it would be right for me to become a monk and live in a monastic community. As I followed the schedule, including working and sitting meditation, a great deal of fear and anxiety began to arise. There were no real outer circumstances that were causing this inner state. It was simply, as one monk put it, “a whole whack of fear”.
The teaching the monks gave me was that our job is to allow the feelings to BE. Just let them happen and eventually they will move through. The problem comes when we try to get rid of them or push them down. Acceptance is the key.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the help of medication or psychotherapy. As we bring into our awareness some of the habits and conditions that underlie the anxiety, it seems to arise less and less. For some people anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication can help lessen the severity of the anxiety enough to deal with the psychological issues.
It’s a practice, dear Anxious. It’s not something we “get” with our minds anymore than we can learn how to play tennis or ski by reading a book. We have to practice!
Now, when anxiety and fear arise in me, I’ve learned to “walk hand in hand” with it, so to speak. It is just there and I continue with my day and try to have the best quality of life I can. My clients don’t know I am feeling anxious, I don’t take it out on others by being in a bad mood. I simply accept and acknowledge that it is there with the knowing it will pass. And, yes, when it gets really bad and I need a break from it, I take medication.
Really, the key to managing anxiety and fear is to stay mindful in the present moment. The problem comes up when we go to the past or the future. If we bring ourselves back to the present, over and over and over, it lessens the angst. Going to the past or the future increases it. It’s really a simple equation. It’s just not easy!
That’s the big picture! For myself, it is helpful to hold this awareness while also having as much information as I can about when and why anxiety arises.
Remember, anxiety and fear can also be adaptive and helpful or can even save your life. It is like an internal alarm system that is telling you to run, or to fight or to freeze. It is good to have as much information as you can so I suggest you first check out the website: https://www.anxietycanada.com where you will find information and videos that can help you to better understand how to deal with the anxiety.
I can also suggest another website that can give you some guidance on techniques for relaxation. https://www.helpguide.org/
Not all anxiety is the same and what works for one person, may not work for another. For example, if your anxiety is the result of complex trauma, then Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), one of the most widely used treatment modalities, likely will not work at a deep enough level. For trauma related anxiety I would recommend you seek a therapist who practices one of the somatically based treatments – Somatic Transformation, Somatic Experiencing, Self-regulation Therapy, or Sensor-motor Psychotherapy. Again, you can find an abundance of information on-line.
Don’t’ be afraid to ask for help, Anxious. Counselling is a good ally in this struggle.