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with Rebecca Mandeville, MA, MFT

Anxiety as a Health-Seeking Signal – Part One

What Those Anxious Feelings May Be Trying To Tell You – And Why It’s Important To Listen (Part One of a Two Part Series)

What if anxiety is not always just a clinical disorder to be treated, but is serving as a barometer of our overall mental and emotional health? This two-part article focuses on anxiety as a ‘health-seeking signal’ inviting us to reconnect with the truest parts of ourselves that have been neglected or repressed.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is commonly believed to be an automatic, ‘built-in’ response to perceived threats, and is often referred to as our ‘fight-or-flight arousal’, or ‘fight or flight response’ as a species. Therefore, it stands to reason that children who grew up in chaotic, possibly traumatic home environments where their fight or flight (arousal) response was frequently activated are susceptible to developing various kinds of anxiety disorders even prior to the onset of adulthood.

Hence, it is a concern that physicians and psychiatrists whose patients report feeling anxious typically prescribe anti-anxiety medication but do not always recommend that their patient also see a qualified Mental Health professional (e.g. therapist or counselor) to explore the possible root cause(s) of the anxiety as well as to identify possible additional or alternative (i.e., non-prescription) treatments.

Signs And Symptoms Of Anxiety

Although anxiety can take on many forms, the below are signs and symptoms commonly associated with this behavioral health disorder:

  • Excessive Worry and Rumination
  • Irritability / Anger
  • Sleep Disturbance / Insomnia
  • Poor Concentration / Forgetfulness
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle Tension / Mysterious Aches and Pains
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Blood Pressure Spikes
  • Increased Heart Rate
  • Heart Palpitations / Chest Pain / ‘Panic Attacks’

Psychotherapy As A Means Of Successfully Treating Anxiety Disorders

What if anxiety was not always something to be avoided and/or medicated away, but was instead something it would benefit us to be curious about? One way that I invite my clients to explore this possibility is to ask them to tune into their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations the next time they notice they are feeling anxious.

What is happening right then in the moment? Was there a possible ‘trigger’ initiating the anxious sensations? As the following Case Study illustrates, this simple exercise can provide surprising insights regarding what a person’s anxiety ‘signals’ might be trying to convey.

The Wisdom Of Anxiety: A Case Study

I once had a client (whom I will call ‘Jeremy – not his actual name) share with me in session that he had recently felt extremely anxious when he entered a hotel lobby on a business trip. He attributed this to what he thought was the ‘Generalized Anxiety Disorder’ (GAD) he had been diagnosed with by his family doctor years before, prior to beginning his psychotherapeutic work with me.

I suggested early on in therapy that he begin keeping an ‘Awareness Journal’ and to write in this journal whenever he was feeling particularly anxious. During one such onset of extreme symptoms that occurred during a business trip, Jeremy realized while writing in his journal that he had started to feel anxious when he saw a certain type of old-fashioned couch in the hotel lobby he had just walked into.

Upon further reflection in his Awareness Journal, Jeremy suddenly realized that the retro-style couch looked nearly identical in style and in color to a couch that was in the living room of the home he had lived in as a child. Needless to say, this gave us much to explore in this and future sessions as he began to remember and share traumatic events from childhood that up until then he had unknowingly repressed.

Over time, the chronic, ‘generalized’ anxiety Jeremy had been suffering from for years receded as he continued to work diligently in psychotherapy to reconnect with the wounded, ‘lost’ parts of himself he had unknowingly disconnected from during childhood while growing up in a chaotic, unpredictable, alcoholic family system.

He eventually chose to stop taking his anti-anxiety medication under the supervision of a physician and is able to self-manage any anxious sensations that arise via deep breathing exercises and Mindfulness Meditation practices I introduced him to in therapy, along with Somatic-Psychology techniques (for more information on the use and efficacy of Somatic-Psychology in the treatment and healing of trauma refer to Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma).

Jeremy also continues to self-reflect in his Awareness Journal, which has become a critical aspect of his ongoing psycho-emotional healing and growth. (Note: Details of specific client cases have been changed to protect privacy).

Anxiety and Psychotropic Medication

While taking psychotropic medication to minimize symptoms is a personal choice, and in some cases is medically advisable, there are other effective interventions that a person can pursue, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy; Family Systems work (as discussed in the above case study); deep breathing exercises; yoga; daily physical exercise; holistic / body-oriented therapies (such as Hakomi Therapy and The Feldenkrais Method); Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction; accupuncture; massage; medical cannabis (now supported by research); and homeopathic remedies as prescribed by a Naturopathic doctor,

Recent research also confirms that Mindfulness Meditation can be highly effective in addressing anxiety symptoms. Mindfulness is a practice that involves being fully engaged in whatever is going on around you. “It is simply the act of paying attention to whatever you are experiencing, as you experience it”, explains Kate Hanley, author of A Year of Daily Calm: A Guided Journal for Creating Tranquility Every Day. “By choosing to turn your attention away from the everyday chatter of the mind and on to what your body is doing, you give the mind just enough to focus on that it can quiet down.” In 2013 researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center published a study that confirmed that Mindfulness Meditation reduces anxiety at a neural level.

Working Mindfully With Anxiety

As the above brief discussion illustrates, there may be far more to anxiety than meets the eye. While it is understandable why anyone experiencing anxiety would want relief from these extremely uncomfortable symptoms, it may be that the symptoms themselves are pointing to possible solutions to those who are willing to explore their anxiety via mindfully cultivating an attitude of acceptance, curiosity, and patience. Journalling, painting, and other forms of creative expression, as well as psychotherapy and/or sharing in a support group, may offer a means of discovering the wisdom that anxiety has to offer.

A Special Note of Caution: It is recommended that a person experiencing frequent anxiety symptoms get a complete physical to rule out disorders like Graves (Thyroid) Disease, hormonal imbalances, and other medical conditions that can cause extreme and/or chronic anxiety.

I will be publishing Part Two of this article soon – Subscribe to be notified over on the right side-bar. 

You are welcome to reprint this post with the following attribution: Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, is an internationally recognized expert in recovering from the negative effects of being raised in a dysfunctional family system. She is a pioneer in researching, defining, and describing what she terms ‘Family Scapegoat Abuse’ (FSA).  You can learn more about Rebecca’s online (video) Scapegoat Recovery coaching services and/or purchase her eBook on FSA by visiting scapegoatrecovery.com

 

Anxiety as a Health-Seeking Signal – Part One


Rebecca C. Mandeville, MFT

Rebecca C. Mandeville, MFT, specializes in recovering from the negative effects of being raised in dysfunctional / abusive family systems. She served as Core Faculty at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology and is a pioneer in defining and describing what she named (for research purposes) 'Family Scapegoating Abuse' (FSA). Today she focuses on helping family scapegoating abuse survivors navigate the unique challenges they face.

You can email Rebecca at [email protected] to see if her counseling or coaching services are right for you. You may also purchase Rebecca's introductory eBook on FSA recovery to learn more about the signs and symptoms of FSA.

You are invited to visit Rebecca's website to learn more about Family Scapegoating Abuse as well as sign up for her monthly FSA newsletter and access resources, including her introductory eBook on FSA.

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APA Reference
Mandeville, R. (2020). Anxiety as a Health-Seeking Signal – Part One. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 5, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/scapegoat-recovery/2020/01/anxiety-as-a-health-seeking-signal-part-one/

 

Last updated: 13 Mar 2020
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network (blogs.psychcentral.com) prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.