Emotions are a normal part of human experience and as such are neither good nor bad. Even unpleasant emotions like fear and anxiety have a very important function when it comes to human survival, in that they motivate us to take necessary action.
Fear and anxiety are closely related, but there is an important distinction: Fear is the response to a danger that is immediate, and is necessary for our survival in a life-threatening situation. Anxiety refers to the anticipation of a potential threat that may or may not happen in the future, and is geared towards preventing a fear-provoking situation from happening. In this respect, anxiety can be a normal, beneficial emotion. Anxiety around impending redundancy may motivate us to find alternative work to keep a roof over our heads; it can motivate us to prepare for an exam in order that we don’t experience negative consequences. unpleasant as it may feel, anxiety can motivate us to act.
Anxiety becomes problematic when it interferes with everyday life and prevents us from living our lives to the full. For some people, the feeling of anxiety can be very intense, to the point of panic, and they may start avoiding any situation which is likely to provoke it; this can be paralysing and can prevent them from participating in normal and beneficial life activities, such as socialising or even leaving the house.
There are a number of reasons why some people suffer from excessive anxiety; for example genetic and biological factors, substance abuse and traumatic life experiences can make people more prone to suffering from anxiety.
However, in many cases, anxiety develops as a result of unhelpful patterns of thinking and dealing with emotions, which are learnt from our parents and other adults early in life. Often we given the message as children that our feelings are either “good” or “bad”. If a feeling is judged as “bad”, we may tell ourselves that we “shouldn’t” be feeling like this and that the fault lies either with ourselves or others or our life circumstances. The result is that we may try to alleviate our “bad” feelings through unhealthy coping strategies, such as substance abuse, controlling our eating, working long hours, self-harming in one way or another; or we may try to change others through bullying, withholding or manipulating. These strategies may seem to help in the short term, but ultimately do nothing to alleviate our anxiety.
Allowing and accepting our emotions can be an important step in reducing anxiety. A non-judgmental attitude allows us to be present with our feelings and use them in a constructive way or just let them go. When we accept the full range of our emotions and learn to use them constructively, we tend to be less anxious about experiencing the judgment of others. We begin to feel empowered rather than helpless. Those around us also begin to change, as we give them the space to take responsibility for their own feelings and actions, rather than blame them and raise their defences.
New habits of thinking take time to learn, and giving up old patterns initially creates more anxiety as we contemplate letting go of an illusory sense of control.
Counselling can help you to identify the causes of your own anxiety and to make changes that will help free you from its paralysing effects.
If your anxiety stems from traumatic life events, you may want to explore the possibility of EMDR.