Sunday, 13 January 2013

What Is Anxiety?


What is Anxiety? It’s quite a slippery term. Used by many people in different ways. In general speech we mean unease or nervousness. Sometimes we can attach the feeling to a particular forthcoming event, and sometimes it is a more general feeling that is non specific and falls over us like a cloak. The word itself comes from the Latin anxius to choke, and I guess we have all experienced that particular grade of anxiety which tightens your throat. Very nasty.

Here’s an interesting thing, you can sometimes swap the word “anxious” with “eager”:

“I’m anxious to get to the station”
“I’m eager to get to the station”

“I’m anxious about the speech I have to give next Friday”
I’m eager to make that speech next Friday”

I think this points to the fact that anxiety and excitement are quite closely related emotions. For example stage fright is an interesting combination of anxiety and excitement.

Two people facing the same challenge may fall either side of the dividing line between the concepts. One person may feel principally eager to go on stage, whilst the other may feel principally anxious. In other words we may respond differently to stimuli in our lives. We are obviously meant to experience some anxiety in relation to certain events and occurrences; this is part of our survival system. In the presence of a tiger anxiety is a necessary and appropriate part of our flight or flight system.

Things get more complicated in the modern world as we experience anxiety in relation to things that appear to be threats. The site of your boss, going on a train journey, going to the bank; these may not really contain the level of threat that warrants high levels of anxiety. Nevertheless the mechanisms of the mind may perceive these things as “tigers”.

In fact there are 6 types of anxiety disorder (according to DSM-1V):
Phobia
Generalised anxiety disorder
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Acute Stress Disorder
Panic disorder

As you see, these are quite wide ranging and, from the point of view of a therapist, require quite different approaches. A certain amount of investigation is needed to decide which of these categories they might fall into, and therefore what might be the most appropriate approach for that particular person.

In Generalised Anxiety Disorder or GAD a person may be anxious about almost anything and everything, and this distress is inhibiting to normal life. People suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder may experience many symptoms that you might associate with fear; sweating, wanting to go to the loo, heart pumping, a dry mouth and much more.

There are many different ideas about the causes of GAD. What follows is my rather generalised idea of how it may be viewed through the lens of different theories.

Psychoanalytical theory, for example, may put forward the idea that the id and the ego are in conflict. The id is desperately trying to express itself in its sexual or aggressive ways, and the ego is trying to repress this unacceptable expression. This conflict causes anxiety. Remember I’m generalising here.

In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, it may be proposed that reasons such as the perception of loss of control are at the root of the problem.

Learning theory considers that we learn to associate anxiety with bad things that have happened to us, so the sight of your boss may cause anxiety as your previous experience has shown you that you may be in trouble.

As a Hypnotherapist I might take the view that whatever the cause, the experience may well be linked to certain stimuli in your life. I would hope to try and build new and more suitable associations with that stimuli. Sometimes people may “catastrophise” an event or experience, where they kind of dramatise and magnify their experience. This is not done consciously, it is done at an unconscious lrvrl.

There are many approaches that a Hypnotherapist might take, and the approach will depend very much on the particular character and perceptions of the client.


I’m very interested in working with people with anxiety as I think it is quite a universal experience. In fact it was anxiety that lead me into hypnotherapy in the first place.

Here there is an important thing to say about my experience; I faced some quite horrid surgery, and felt extremely anxious about it. In trying to find answers I went to a Hypnotherapist. The truth is that I was still frightened and it still hurt, but I just had a couple things I could do in my head – even whilst being wheeled into the operating theatre. It really wasn’t a magic bullet, but it did help me deal with the reality I faced.