Coaching for Anxiety
If you suffer from anxiety, it may be limited to specific circumstances such as exam nerves or worry about a deadline at work. Others may experience anxiety when they see a spider or a mouse. The person may feel compelled to check under the bed before they can go to bed.
Anxiety is usually brought on by things which you believe may happen in the future (or possibly that they won’t happen as you would wish them to). The constant rumination about what might happen may be accompanied by churning in the stomach or palpitations, and these symptoms make the problem seem even worse.
But for some people anxiety may feel like it permeates their whole life. This type of prolonged anxiety may result in symptoms such as restlessness, fatigue and irritability. Sufferers may experience muscular tension, and be unable to sleep or concentrate. This kind of prolonged anxiety is known as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).
Low-level anxiety may escalate into acute panic attacks, with more intense symptoms including pounding of the heart, sweating, shaking, difficulty breathing, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, and extreme fear (of death, insanity or loss of control).
As we have seen, there is a physical dimension to anxiety, but it cannot be generated without an imagined representation of a “possible” future event. A person seeing a spider may make an internal picture of a huge spider crawling towards them, and then feel the resulting fear. Another person may create the sound of a room full of people laughing at them and feel the fear of that.
Sometimes the anxiety may escalate into a panic attack. For instance a person may imagine failing an exam, talk to themselves about how terrible that would be and what the consequences would be and then start to panic about what they are thinking about the consequences of failing.
Similarly a pounding of the heart resulting from thinking about a spider can lead to worry about a heart attack, and thus to increased pounding. Such physical escalation is often a source of panic attacks.
Why do we become anxious?
In fact anxiety is an abnormal extension of a normal human process. At a low level, anxiety is not a bad thing. In fact, the physical aspect of anxiety, the fight-flight response, has evolved as a natural, beneficial response to threat, as it helps us react to danger. This physical response gives rise to greater alertness, faster preparation for action, and a reduced probability of overlooking threats. This adaptation allows humans to identify potential threats and to act accordingly. It has actually been shown that those with low levels of anxiety have a greater risk of death than those with average levels. This is because the absence of fear can lead to injury or death.
So what goes wrong to produce anxiety?
None of us can actually predict the future, but human beings are designed to do just that – to take the information we have about how things are at the moment and our memories of past events, and make our best-guess prediction for what will happen in the next moment, the next hour, the next week and so forth. Unfortunately we do not always make the best use of the information we have: we may tend to focus on the negatives and ignore the positives. And when we really cannot guess, sometimes we imagine the worst.
In NLP we talk about filters. We cannot possibly process all the information we receive (6 billion bits/second), so we have to apply filters. These filters are the product of our thinking, beliefs, memories and so forth. Anxiety consists in the application of filters for negative outcomes. However it is possible to change these filters. We are not usually consciously aware of our filters, and even our beliefs may be only partly conscious. But it may not take a lot of work to bring them to consciousness given the right support and guidance.
In heightened states of anxiety such as panic attacks, the person may also be filtering for (ie paying more attention to) symptoms such as increased heart rate, sweating, and so forth. Because we tend to interpret such symptoms as evidence for heightened emotional states, this particular filtering leads to a confirmation that “I am really anxious,” (if not that “I might be having a heart attack”). This produces a positive feedback cycle, or vicious circle, where the anxiety feeds the symptoms and the symptoms feed the anxiety. There is some evidence that in normal conscious experience, signals from the body are ignored or suppressed, whereas in chronic anxiety, these signals are attended to. This is something we call hyper-vigilance.
What solutions are there for anxiety?
Many people suffer from anxiety, but cope with it in ways which are themselves problematic: alcohol and drug use, eating disorders, compulsive rituals, violence and other behaviours designed to avoid the anxiety. Twice as many women as men report anxiety as such, and this seems to be related to men’s preference for these other avoidance behaviours.
A variety of medications such as diazepam and some of the anti-depressants have been used to treat anxiety. There is little evidence that drugs, used alone, reduce the frequency or severity of anxiety, and users have been shown to exhibit the same level of fear and avoidance behaviour after the drug treatment as before. In the UK, NICE guidelines state that medication should be the last stage in treatment, after trying psychological interventions such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). The problem with this approach is that very often the patient is taught to manage the anxiety, whereas they may be looking for a more permanent solution.
Understanding your anxiety and learning new strategies for dealing with it may be all you need, but you may need the help and guidance of a practitioner such as a coach or a counsellor. At BIHC we can both of these as we offer counselling & psychotherapy, as well as health coaching.