Every single adult human is the product of an innumerable amount of factors. Genetics, predisposition, parents, childhood, siblings, friendships, heartbreaks, accomplishments and failures are just a few of the elements that contribute to who we are and how we function in the world.
Due to the complex nature of our development, there are many opportunities for things to go awry and negatively contribute to our ability to navigate through life completely happily and successfully. It isn’t a matter of if this will happen but a matter of when, how and how much. Some effects of our life experiences, especially in our youngest years, are severe, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, while others are too subtle to be recognized as disorders at all. One of the most common manifestations of the human experience is anxiety. In fact, anxiety is the most common mental-health concern in America and, whether it’s been diagnosed by a doctor or not, it prevents many of us from having the quality of life we deserve.
Before I go further, I’d like to encourage you to separate out the words “anxiety” and “disorder” because, ultimately, anxiety is experienced by many, many people who, by conventional standards, are not mentally ill or disordered. Anxiety is perhaps the most commonly cited reason for beginning therapy among new clients to my office and, whether the client is aware or not, a primary barrier to a more satisfying life.
One of the more curious elements of anxiety is that it can look almost entirely different from one person to the next, while depression, for instance, has common-enough attributes that most plagued by it are onto what’s ailing them pretty quickly. Depression is typically marked by low mood, changes in sleep and appetite and general lethargy. On the other hand, one person’s anxiety may cause headaches and nausea while another’s results in shortness of breath, inability to be still for long periods of time, racing thoughts or preoccupation with things out of their control. As a result, it is quite possible for anxiety to go unrecognized by its possesser, perhaps being mistaken as a medical problem (headaches, nausea, etc.) or as being high energy (can’t sit still).
If any of this resonates with you, it’s OK — it’s a nod to your humanity and, more importantly, it’s manageable! The easiest and most obvious way to decrease anxiety is with therapy. Through the process of sharing thoughts and feelings to a neutral figure — your therapist — there is a natural relief that is experienced. I like to call it the talking cure, a term originally coined by Sigmund Freud that refers to the result over time of unburdening yourself of concerns, fears and anxieties. Often times, the addition of this specific type of talking results in significant anxiety reduction in a short amount of time.
If you aren’t prepared to commit to professional guidance (and even if you are), it is important to improve your ability to self-monitor. For instance, if your anxiety manifests itself primarily in physical ways, such as a constricted chest, begin to take note of when your chest becomes tight and what the circumstances are. Are you under increased stress as you notice this unpleasant feeling? What are your current worries? Are you presently fearful of anything and is what you’re fearing out of your control? How long did it take for the feeling to go away? Did anything in particular help it to go away more quickly? Through the process of self-monitoring, we develop awareness of what causes us anxiety, which gives us the ability to work through some possible scenarios. For example, if your anxiety in a moment is related to fear of messing up at work, it is helpful to look to the past as a frame of reference. Have you messed up at work in the past? If so, what was the consequence? What was it like getting through it? Did you survive? I imagine you did — and reminding yourself that you will survive this as well, whatever this may be, is hugely helpful and even empowering.
If you are one of the lucky people who doesn’t suffer from some version of anxiety, I offer you congratulations, as you are truly lucky. Alternately, if you are one of the countless people who does experience anxiety, learn a little bit more about yourself through it — its roots, manifestations and ways to resolve it. Your anxiety is one of the many layers of your complexity but it certainly does not define you, nor should it rule you.
Kristina Furia is a psychotherapist specializing in issues and concerns of the LGBTQ community in addition to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other mental illnesses. Her private practice, Philadelphia LGBTQ Counseling, offers both individual and couples sessions (www.lgbtphillytherapy.com).