Is it the Anxiety about Anxiety that's Really Making us Anxious?
I work with many clients who suffer from anxiety, stress and worry – the terrible triplets. What unites them all is fear of some incipient threat. Sometimes this is rooted in the present i.e. that what is already happening might get worse and you might not be able to cope. Or it could be more of an ‘irrational’ fear i.e. what if you lose your job, your partner, whatever it is you hold dear. You might not be able to articulate the cause of this anxiety exactly, but it still feels very real, insidiously lurking and taking the fun out of everything.
There is another type of anxiety that I can only describe as ‘the fear of the fear’. This often besets clients when they’re actually doing quite well and not experiencing any major external stressors in their life; but out of nowhere it’ll hit them – what will happen if the anxiety returns? Will I be able to cope? Will it topple me? Will all my efforts and achievements be destroyed? This type of anxiety is actually the most threatening of all because it often appears when everything seems positive, and as such it can be extremely destabilising. It’s almost as if the person 'thinks' themselves into an extreme state of stress simply out of the fear of the anxiety re-emerging. So it’s not the losing of the job, the losing of the partner – it is just the fear of having those fears.
To add more fuel to this pyre of anxiety, there has been a lot of media attention over the past few decades about the physical and biological effects of stress. Interestingly, some recent studies have have shown that stress in itself isn’t necessarily a threat to one’s physical health but stressing about the stress is! In 2013, the European Heart Journal published data from a 29-year health study on London-based civil servants. They found that in the ‘highly stressed’ group, those who thought stress was harmful had a 42% increased risk of death whereas those who did not worry about the ill effects of their stress were less likely to die within the period observed. But what was even more compelling was that those who were highly stressed but didn’t worry about the ill effects were even less likely to die than those who considered they had little stress in their lives.
I think it’s time to take a step back from viewing stress as the bogey man. Maybe 'he’s' not all bad. Like all emotions, there is a purpose to stress. Perhaps it’s telling us we need to slow down, step back, evaluate. Stress isn’t the issue – how we respond to it is. So, what can be done? I encourage my clients to befriend their stress. Rather than running away from it or, even more damaging, worrying about the stress before it actually appears, to gently get to know it. Sometimes this will involve some chair work where they try and engage in dialogue with their stress. Often it's a question of building up a client's confidence to remind them that they have dealt with and come through stressful situations in the past. It's important to hold in mind that the stress will not annihilate you.