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Anxiety: Friend or Foe?

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Panic Disorder » Featured Article

By Terry Tempinski, PhD

Terry Tempinski, PhD

We have all known the experience of being anxious, worried, and even panicked. While these symptoms can become overwhelming and debilitating, the good news is, generally speaking, anxiety is not difficult to treat. Let me explain.

No one likes to be anxious. I am here to help you appreciate your anxiety as a very good friend who is trying to call your attention to a source of inner turmoil. Typically, anxiety is not difficult to treat because it is only a symptom. Its exploration in the course of psychotherapy offers clues as to the source of the problem, and once that cause is understood, and the work of resolving the underlying cause begins, the anxiety tends to remit.

If you are feeling anxious, panicky or consumed with worry to the point of not being able to focus, concentrate, sleep, or comfortably interact with others, please don’t get caught up in what I call identifying with a diagnosis such as “anxiety disorder” or “panic disorder.” Diagnoses are merely tools mental health professionals use to describe a cluster of symptoms. Symptoms of anxiety are much like a fever, which we know indicates that we have an infection of some type. If we define our problem as merely a fever and only treat the fever, we run the risk of overlooking the cause of the fever….thus prolonging our recovery. Similarly, anxious feelings that are tenacious are a sign that something is troubling us deeply. Perhaps you have had the experience of feeling anxious about something and, at the same time, realizing clearly why you were anxious. In such situations, you were probably able to “take the bull by the horns,” so to speak, and resolve things somehow so that you could re-establish your emotional equilibrium. When people present themselves for psychotherapy, this is what we try to do. However, when persistent or long-standing feelings of anxiety are ignored, they often give way to more exaggerated forms of anxiety, such as the person who struggles with anxiety to the point that they begin becoming anxious about becoming anxious, which of course, only makes them more anxious!

It sounds simple, but if you are struggling with anxiety, you know it is not. Our mind is so complicated with its multiple layers of awareness. On a continuum we have our conscious mind at one end, which includes things we are thinking about right this minute, and at the other end of the continuum we have our unconscious mind which includes memories of feelings and experiences we cannot recall (eg., being born). It’s mind-boggling when you think about it: stored in our brains are all of our life experiences along with all of our feelings about them. It’s no wonder that when we are feeling anxious or panicky, it is not a simple, straightforward process of deciphering the cause(s).

In a typical course of psychotherapy, as we explore our anxieties, we begin to identify contradictions which are the key to resolving our issues or conflicts. For example, let’s say you are one of those people who are anxiety free until you begin really pursuing what you want for yourself or when you try to do something that is truly in your best interest (eg., lose weight, meet people, get close, try to commit, or even pursue your career goals). This is confusing, right? If you want these things, why are you so uncomfortable pursuing them? Perhaps you are beginning to recognize that, ironically, you feel comfortable being passive or even with acting in self-destructive ways. At first glance this seems to make no sense! But these kinds of contradictions or conflicts, as we call them, are exactly the kinds of things that often underlie symptoms of anxiety. At its best, therapy effectively uncovers such contradictions and helps people come to terms with whatever is troubling them. When that happens, symptoms of anxiety naturally then subside.

So if you are struggling with anxiety or panic attacks, please try conceptualizing your anxiety as your friend, not as your foe. Think of your symptoms as a valuable source of information which contains answers as to why you are struggling. I think you will find this helpful and then, at least, you won’t be working against yourself!

About the Author...

Dr. Tempinski is a licensed clinical psychologist in Farmington Hills, Michigan where she has practiced for 30 years. She specializes in treating adult individuals and enjoys treating depression and anxiety.

Last Update: 6/4/2009

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