Disordering Anxiety

I didn’t set out to be critical of Bio-medical approaches to the treatment of anxiety. Like many other people my position shifted based upon my own experience. When I first experienced the anxious state, I had no idea what was happening to me. I had a degree in Psychology, was a trained counsellor, but had never come across a description of anxiety that I could relate to what the anxious state was feeling like for me. The Psychology textbook descriptions seemed to capture neither the intensity nor the detail, and also seemed to miss out the human perspective of the person experiencing the state. Nowhere mentioned feelings, such as knowing that you feel lost and unlike yourself when in the anxious state while knowing you are still inside somewhere able to observe and dislike what’s happening. This very natural experience and an aspect of the fight or flight response but was instead described as ‘dissociation or de-personalisation’. Which are psychological terms that are unrelatable and make the experience seem somehow medical and dysfunctional. Similarly, when describing the sense that many anxious people experience where you worry that the way you feel on the inside is apparent to everyone on the outside which makes you feel vulnerable and transparent, and therefore fearful of being judged, the experience is described formally as paranoia and delusion. Instead of being referred to as a by-product of experiencing a survival state, the term pathologises the experience making it seem ‘wrong’ or ‘broken’. Other aspects such as the fear of being labelled as ‘mentally ill’ or ‘psychiatrically disordered’ increase the need to try to hide what you are feeling from the outside world, all exacerbating the sense of isolation leading to being afraid in private and trying to function in public. None of these subtle but really significant aspects of anxiety were in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the main reference catalogue of ‘disorders’ used by medical professionals to establish ‘what’s wrong with you’. Everything seems to be framed as ‘evidence’ of illness, rather than components of the anxious state.

Anxiety is a sneaky bugger, it can slowly creep up, or it can spring upon us seemingly out of nowhere. It can be experienced in short bursts, and can also linger around at varying levels of intensity. At one point I felt as though I was in a permanent panic attack so physiologically intense were the feelings. I felt certain that something very terrible was going to happen at any moment and yet part of me was still able to go about the business of life to an extent. The anxious experience is fascinating once you come to understand it fully. It feels very illogical and irrational when it’s misunderstood, but when it is demystified, a lightbulb goes on and there’s no going back. It all becomes very clear and better still this knowledge allows anxiety to recede as equilibrium is restored.

My journey was similar to the experiences of many of the people I’ve worked with over the years. I was lucky in some ways that a friend of mine who was also a counsellor was able to suggest that what I was experiencing sounded a bit like anxiety (at this point the pain in my chest was so intense I thought I had a broken rib). I said that it didn’t match the descriptions in the manual, but she said there were a few symptoms that rang a bell for her. I went to see my GP next. He was really kind, and had known that I’d been under a lot of stress for a year with a partner with Leukaemia, a small child, final year at University while trying to organise a transatlantic move. To me, this was just life and was to be got on with, yes it felt stressful, but how I saw it was that it didn’t deserve this level of crisis in my body. He prescribed anti-depressants which I was too scared to take. I thought if I did it would confirm that I was ‘mentally ill’ and I also did not feel depressed, so thought it was strange that this was the answer. I also was afraid of side-effects. What if they changed me? What if I ended up like a zombie? I then saw a variety of counsellors, who again, were all really kind, really supportive, and helped with some of the sense-making around why I might be feeling anxious. I had always thought anxiety was about being scared, afraid of something in particular. I hadn’t been scared which is why I didn’t understand the presence of anxiety. From my point of view it was anxiety that was making me feel scared, not the situation. What I learned through time is that anxiety is more about ‘overwhelm’. It’s about the way that our primitive brain attempts to ‘save’ us. Anxiety is a canary in the coal mine letting us know something is not ok, or that circumstances are not ok for us. Anxiety is a faithful friend, but it can be a clingy friend that we can find ourselves stuck with for longer than necessary.

I was still anxious and still looking for answers. I didn’t want to feel this way, I wanted to go back to my old laid-back self. It was distressing to feel so horrible, uncomfortable, worried, and untethered from myself. I decided I was going to go straight to the person who could help me. I used what was left of my student loan for a private appointment with the most famous Psychologist/Psychiatrist I had heard of. A person who was regularly on TV talking about all things mind and brain. It was so daunting to do this while in the anxious state. I flew to London, took the train to his clinic, all the time thinking, this man will surely be able to tell me how to stop being anxious. This man, though again, very pleasant, listened to my description of my internal state and a little detail about my situation, before recommending 40mg of Seroxat. A controversial anti-depressant. That was his solution. The famous man off the telly who had all the answers wanted to give me an anti-depressant. I felt despair back out on the London street. I felt like giving up and just accepting that this was it, the new me was an anxious, worrying, uncomfortable and trembling mess and I would just have to learn to live with it. It was a low point. One of the things that bothered me most about this experience was his lack of curiosity. Why were people so happy to dismiss this life-affecting state as something that just requires a bit of medication to right it? Why wasn’t anyone fascinated and interested in the detail? The way it increased and decreased according to environmental changes, thoughts, emotions, conversations, mealtimes etc? This didn’t feel like a broken brain, it felt like a switch was switched on which put me into a different mode of operation. A ramped up super-charged plugged into the electricity with nowhere to go mode. I realised that in the absence of anyone else, it was going to be me that had to get curious.

I went on a bit of a mission to find out more about anxiety. I wanted to know what exactly it was, why it was there, what were the physiological aspects, what were the psychological aspects, why did they feel the way they felt, how did I feel about it, how was I reacting to it, what made it worse, what helped, were there ever times that it went away (yes for half a second before I fully woke up in the morning) and, was there anything at all I could do to influence it? I became my own lab rat and finally began to make some interesting discoveries.

I initially went back to the neuropsychology to gain clarity about which parts of the brain and nervous system are involved in the anxious response. Because I have an engineering background it then made sense to me to have a look at systems and processes. This was more complicated because they weren’t identified by any of the psychology books at the time, but still, through observation and experimentation, it became obvious that the systematic operation of anxiety is much like any other supply and demand system in the human body. I then looked at the psychological/emotional aspects. What was taking place? How did it manifest itself at the level of feelings? Then I looked at responses. How was I responding to all of these phenomena that were taking place in my body, my thoughts, my emotions? Again, through this curious lens I was finding out so much about how anxiety functioned. As I was doing this activity of demystifying the state to myself and experimenting with different responses, the anxious state was abating. The anxious state was still easily triggered at this stage, as if the thermostat was set at the most sensitive setting, responding to everything in the environment, but it was definitely changing into something I understood and was no longer afraid of. Through this process I came to see that this state was not an ‘illness’ nor a ‘disorder’. It was actually a functioning system designed to keep me safe. It had kicked in because I was exhausted and overwhelmed but soldiering on with low reserves. There is nothing disordered about this as far as I can tell. My brain was doing it’s job. However, what I also found out about the anxious state is that after it completes its job of activating to get us through a stressful situation, the way we respond to it prevents it from switching back off again.

Through applying the knowledge that I now had I found myself restored to my naturally balanced state. I felt like me again. I began to work again and see counselling clients. When anyone shared with me that they were anxious, I in turn shared with them my experience and how I’d approached it. Surprising to us all, their anxiety would also recede. Without ever discussing this with anyone, my reputation grew as the person to refer anxious people to. This was really rewarding work, because seeing people transform from anxious to comfortable before my eyes was the most amazing experience. Eventually one of the doctors that I knew asked me to explain to him what I was doing. I took an hour to explain to him all of the details (which are quite complex) and then wrapped up with the short version. He said, ‘interesting, why hasn’t someone else come up with this?’. I’ve since been asked this question by a number of people, to which I answer, like who? Who ‘should’ have come up with this instead of me? I think mostly they mean why don’t Psychiatrists already know this. Psychiatrists are at the top of the hierarchy in mental health (or just below the Pharmaceutical Industry) and have a lot of power and influence. I didn’t set out with any intention to undermine Psychiatry, it’s just that it didn’t really offer me anything other than medication and I didn’t think that was good enough. In answer to the question ‘why was it me?’ I think it was a combination of things. I couldn’t stand to feel anxious (who can?). Anxiety was in contrast to my personality which was essentially pretty easy going. I think like an engineer. I’d already trained in Counselling prior to my Psych degree which gave me a person-centred humanistic grounding which aligned itself with my outlook far more accurately than Psychological theory ever did, and finally, because I’m curious and love to get to the bottom of problems in order to find solutions to them. What I found I share with you here on this website that will grow and grow until it’s filled with everything I can find that may be helpful to you in your restoration of balance. If you have anything to add or share that has been helpful to you, feel free to get in touch with me, I’d love to hear about it and create a platform where we can co-create a better way of understanding our own brains, our own experiences, and our own wellness.😊