It’s not difficult to find information about tackling anxiety. The hard part is knowing how to apply it correctly.
Mindfulness, CBT, NLP, Acceptance Therapy, Self-Hypnosis. I don’t have a bad word to say about any of it. These are the tools which will do the job. Here’s the thing though…they are just tools, and it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about master sushi chefs, carpenters, mechanics, or geneticists, the tools are only useful when you know how to use them skilfully.
Anxiety is often an underestimated foe.
The latest self-help book will have you believe that if you follow the step by step process presented, you’ll be as right as rain in a couple of months. Anxiety though, needs to be outsmarted. It’s Harry Houdini, The Hydra, and the Death Eaters all rolled into one. Like smoke behind a sealed door, it can pour its octopus-like body through the tiniest hole and seep back in. You can douse the fire, but a stray ember can re-ignite as you walk away.
Tackling anxiety skilfully is an art. Great artists make their performances look effortless, but it’s the ten thousand hours of experience which deliver such graceful execution. Before mastery is achieved, repeated failure is inevitable. With each failure an adjustment must follow, and when it comes to anxiety, these skills are among the most difficult to learn because the rules are rarely “fair”.
Working “hard” doesn’t guarantee success!
An hour of CBT every day, two self-hypnosis sessions, and a truck load of goodwill may do little to remedy the misery. The willingness is present. The tools are faithfully and accurately applied, with the protestant work ethic, as prescribed, and maybe things improve. Any relief however, is often temporary. So what is going on?
I want to share with you a glimpse into my World as a therapist.
“So, let’s begin” I say “with you telling me a bit about what’s going on for you?” My client begins to speak and the narrative unfolds. I am listening intently. Eye contact? Check. Body/pace mirroring? Check. Appropriate head nods/facial expressions? Check. None of this is insincere. I DO care. BUT, in the space behind my eyelids something incredible is taking place. Now I don’t claim personal credit for this. I’m not brilliant. I am simply experienced. You see, I’ve watched the octopus escape ten thousand times. I know exactly how it contorts itself to exploit any weakness in the environment. I hear my client’s story and I see a box full of holes! Smoke is seeping out through ten different leak-points, and there’s a fire in the living room. Immediately, I start to wonder how my client has managed to spring so many leaks. One of them is a ragged football sized blast hole. This will need attention first. “So, you started having panic attacks in August? Can you remember exactly what else was going on for you at that time? Were you under some additional stresses at work, at home, or in your relationships?” Invariably an explanation will follow, confirming the culprits. This is the obvious stuff. No Sherlock needed here. “And historically, how have you coped with challenging circumstances?” I ask. As the answer follows, I am seeing a Windows style menu system in my mind. “THIS PC” is at the top. This is my client (in no particular order).
I am already filing the information they are giving me into the relevant categories. Once I have the information it goes into an Excel style spreadsheet where it is “sorted” into largest file size first. The categories shown above are only a fraction of the process. Next I need to understand how my client’s “Experiences” have affected her “Beliefs”. So we open up these categories and we find this: -
Now, some may argue that by reducing stress levels generally, we can reinstate full access to the reasoning, logical, planning, and controlling super brain, the frontal cortex. Indeed, this is true...to a point! But, it really depends on how widespread the damage is, and how deep it runs. Often you cannot reinstate a calm level of being without tackling the beliefs which are “driving” the anxiety. I won’t labour the point, but the point is this: -
You can’t just throw random techniques at a box full of holes and expect it to repair itself!
So, I can look at this person’s life and ask myself “What action can we take first which will make the greatest impact on her well-being levels?” Then, we discuss my findings, and she informs me that she feels crippled by her sense of unworthiness. I look at the experiences which created those feelings and I start to search in my box of tools for the remedies. I already know that this person, like any other, IS worthy, valuable, capable, lovable, resilient etc. She has been unlucky. She has had a string of negative experiences which have overwhelmed her temporarily. Her brain has become over-aroused in the presence of this overload, and is now self-perpetuating the problem by generating additional anxiety responses. With the fight or flight switch firmly in the “on” position, everything has become threatening. The brain is now negatively focused, hyper-vigilant, and convinced that disaster is imminent. No amount of conscious reassurance seems to help.
Here is where tackling anxiety becomes an art. My job is essentially to reinstate positive belief systems.
FEELINGS are driven by BELIEFS.
The main obstacle though is that feelings and beliefs operate mainly at the subconscious level of awareness, and subconscious belief systems don’t yield easily to plain old logic! We can tell ourselves consciously that something isn’t true. Heck, we can know logically that something isn’t true, but that counts for very little when it comes to “feelings”. We must meet those beliefs where they reside, and that…is in the heart. Scientists don’t work with the heart. Artists do!
When something is “healed”, it becomes functional again. What often passes for healing is not healing. It is a strategy which engineers a solution which can bypass the symptom. Breathing techniques may offer relief from panic, but that which is unbalanced may remain present. CBT may bring relief in the moment as we learn how to bypass the cognitive triggers which increase our sense of alarm. It’s ALL good, but healing offers something deeper. Healing offers functionality, recovery, re-balancing. The ART of tackling anxiety skilfully is the ability to speak to the heart.
In my work, I teach this. I provide the environment in which it is safe enough for us to meet in the space of the heart. I demonstrate how to see without judgement, to recognise original innocence, and forgive perceived blames or shames. It takes an artist’s hand to do this. One cannot just throw “knowledge” or “technique” at such endeavour and expect a great result. One’s efforts must be sincere and loving. Our clients are our canvas, and we must add each brush stroke delicately and lovingly until they can see the outlines of a new masterpiece. Then we must hand them the palette, the brushes, the paints, and ask them to make something beautiful.
John Crawford – March 2017 – www.hypnotherapyforlife.co.uk & www.youcanfixyouranxiety.com