My Introduction to the world of disproportionate fears
I had an odd experience the other day, all four of my clients were coincidentally wanting to discuss the same topic; anxiety. I have never considered myself the anxious type nor until I started coaching did I understand what an anxiety was, other than the general view that it's when someone finds themselves in a place or situation triggering a fear which becomes near to unbearable. I can't say I have experienced that, but I have been particularly nervous on a number of occasions so what's the difference?
When I think of the times I have been particularly nervous, in football matches I didn't think I was good enough to play in, in front of large audiences at the O2 with 25,000 people listening to just me speak and what if I forgot what to say? I can see the theme that connects it all together, when we are outside of our comfort zone and we are doing something we have told ourselves we can't do or might go wrong our body goes into a mode that physically changes our composition. For me these feelings and their effects are momentary but for anxiety sufferers, I can only state loosely that it seems like these fears are programmed in and 'echo' memories of our past into our here and now.
Whilst I am clearly no expert, I have successfully helped people with anxieties make sense of their fears on many occasions now, that particular day of four anxious clients in a row highlighted to me the amount of inconsistencies there are in our understanding and acceptance of something I feel is becoming more and more prevalent in a society where the pressure to 'keep up' has increased somewhat.
The subject does intrigue me more than any other. No two cases are ever the same, in fact I'm finding that one person's perception can greatly contradict the next so does that make one of them wrong?
The scale of distress
When do butterflies turn into nerves, when do nerves turn into pressure, pressure into anxiety, anxiety into panic, panic into depression? Is there a scale for this, can it be measured? One of my biggest concerns for those with anxiety is that what may have been a completely natural physical and psychological reaction to something difficult to process, once given the label of an anxiety can become something permanent, create something that will reverberate as opposed to something that our system does when it is overloaded by shock or fright? I worry that being given a label forms a belief that holds the perceived anxiety in position potentially for many years to follow.
I see that although likely to be necessary in the medical profession, I worry that being given a label further enforces a belief that holds the perceived anxiety in position. When a patient is told 'you have anxiety' I think its possible that they could then misinterpret that as being consigned to a long term condition instead of seeing it as a complicated, yet reasonable, effect of a difficult incident.
I am aware that some sufferers believe they'll never be rid of their anxieties, that they have to just learn to live with it. Many also believe that anxieties are hereditary and because mental health implications have existed amongst other family members feel it was something that was just waiting to resonate within them.
Speaking to those who work in mental health, I'm told anxiety itself is in no way genetic and is more a learnt behaviour caused by the way we process things, by believing an anxiety is a 'birth right' the sufferer would feel far more trapped, but again I'm surprised by the lack of consistency in peoples understanding of what it is that is happening to them.
How Coaching has helped
In my own personal experiences as a coach, changing the perception or story of the situation which creates the anxiety can be very effective. So often we forget where the anxiety came from in the first place. Sometimes if it was created in our childhood when we go back and focus on it through adult eyes we see something very different than what we have told ourselves it was for many years. Some people end up laughing at the self-confessed ridiculousness of their anxiety. Breaking down the fear, talking about its validation, its likelihood, the worst possible case scenario can often allow us to see a bigger picture which can shift perspective and reduce the feeling of anxiety.
I have enjoyed helping clients visualise the anxiety in physical form, a black blob was one persons perception, we discussed the black blob as though it were a living form, it's personality, what makes it angry, what reduces it in size, it's incredible how much this exercise reduces the scale of the perceived anxiety, especially when my client named it Fred! Whilst this may sound like a conversation you'd have with a child, do not underestimate the power of imagery, some of my greatest successes across all areas have come from this technique.
It's also highly common for that image to reveal that the part of us that which causes the fear is actually a younger version of ourselves, for example, if we experienced something traumatic in our childhood, it might be your 8 year old self that is echoing fears into your adult life, help the 8 year old move on and you can free yourself of its effects. Truly fascinating, I've encountered it so many times now.
Is anxiety something we inherit or adopt? Do we at any stage have any control over it? I have seen how people allow their anxiety to restrict certain activities but make exceptions if there are certain conditions. This to me would suggest that because there are conditions to when it stops us and when it doesn't, it can clearly be something we subconsciously control.
I'm also aware that some people may hold on to that anxiety and can be unwittingly responsible for keeping it in place because it's easier for some to live life with the anxiety, and all of its limitations, than it is to actually face up to the situation which caused it in the first place. I see that as being held prisoner within a self imposed cell we can actually walk out of at any time if we choose to. Problem is we know the cell so well, its not great but its better than walking outside into the unknown because its unfamiliar and it might be worse..
How much of it, if any, do we put on ourselves?
I would always try to be aware of the dangers of labelling and the language we use to evaluate the anxiety. Saying 'It will never go away' is equally as damaging as the label itself because that signifies the self perpetuating belief that it is uncontrollable and has now become 'part of us.'
The light at the end of the tunnel.
Trying to avoid things just reinforces the problem we are trying to get away from. If someone wants to find their way through their fears they need to talk about them as the absolute first rule. Other peoples perception of those fears and their effects are irrelevant! We cant judge someone else's fears because they are uniquely personal to that individual.
My job as a coach is not to talk you out of the anxiety nor use reasoning to persuade you that its not as anxious as you think. My observations above are just the musings of patterns I have started to notice in people but in no way form part of an opinion or certainly a knowledge of something so complex.
My job is simple and is why coaching anxieties is such a good way to reduce the effects, I help the sufferer find their own answers, help them unravel where the anxiety started, whether they think its acceptable that the effects have developed to what they are now and to help them see any responsibility they own in making it what it has become. I help people see how they have power, how they can control their process and inevitably all becomes easier from there on.
If you feel like your anxiety has outstayed its welcome and would like their own 'Fred' to pack his bags!? If you'd like to give coaching a try and if anything I've written has made you question anything, please email my team at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can find the answers