You’re alone in the forest when you encounter a large bear. Your heart begins beating faster, your adrenaline flows, your eyes widen, the surface of your skin may grow cold as the body pumps more blood to the brain and major muscles in preparation for fight or flight. This is not anxiety but fear, a normal response under the circumstances. (In case you’re wondering, the best counsel in this case is to turn sideways to the bear, slowly raise your arms to make your profile appear as large as possible, and then slowly withdraw.)
Animals experience fear; only humans experience anxiety. Animals cope with actual threats. We have the ability to imagine a threat and let our imaginations take over our bodies, to the point that we experience rapid heartbeat, adrenaline flow and all the rest, just as if we were really standing in the presence of something that required us to mobilize the fight or flight response.
Occasional episodes of fear generally have no lasting ill effects. (Think of roller-coaster rides!) Anxiety, the vague sense of danger, can range from the mildly annoying to the completely debilitating. Anxiety may take the form of panic attacks or phobias that effectively prevent one from dealing with other people or even leaving one’s home. Depending on the severity of the problem it may be necessary to take anti-anxiety medication in order to function.
How does the psychotherapist deal with anxiety? Research tells us that a combination of two approaches—cognitive behaviour therapy and psychodynamic theory—usually works best. This means helping the client to think and behave differently, while also understanding the origins of the anxiety, which can often be traced to childhood. (Many people have a hypersensitive neurological system, which also predisposes them to having anxiety.)
We begin by teaching the client complete relaxation through slow, deep breathing, breathing in which your stomach goes out as you breathe in. Five deep breaths usually suffice to bring your body into a state of relaxation. Treatment often takes the form of systematic desensitization where you allow yourself to re-experience threatening events in your mind, for it turns out that the body does not distinguish between reality and a rich visualization engaging all the senses. Through repeated practice you will succeed in remaining in a relaxed state throughout the process of imagining numerous aspects of your anxiety-producing situation.
Another aspect of treating anxiety is to give yourself positive messages whenever you sense an anxious moment impending. If you fear driving, for example, you express the opposite of the fear: “I’m a skilled, experienced driving and I drive well. It’s automatic for me to make good decisions while I’m driving. I can imagine myself arriving safely at my destination and I stay relaxed.” Through repetition you teach your body to feel relaxed, confident and comfortable in a situation which earlier produced anxiety.
Arthur Wenk holds a doctorate in musicology and masters degrees in information science, music theory, and psychology.
Art‘s client-centered approach is based on empathic listening, helping clients integrate thoughts, feelings and actions, and assisting them to revise self-stories that have kept them enmeshed in problems: all in the interest of achieving mental, emotional and spiritual wholeness.