I like working with anxiety because it is a high energy that can be readily worked with. In child play therapy, it struck me how simply providing a safe open nonjudgmental space for children to express any feelings can be powerful in helping them release any negative feelings, whereby generalized distorted anxiety and anger turn into specific short-lived anxiety and anger, which is much more healthy and manageable. I believe this applies to adults too. This is why an accepting and nurturing relationship between the counsellor and the client is vital because it allows for these feelings to be expressed and explored freely, so that healing can take place. Hence, to a large degree, I believe that therapy is the therapist herself/himself.
A philosophy I hold dearly is that instead of controlling feelings, we need to befriend them. I often use this analogy in my sessions. Emotions are like our children banging on the door asking for attention (fair enough!). Often our response is to shoo them away, ignore them, or tell them they are bad or we are too busy. This does not help. They might bang harder, or withdraw into depression. A more healthy way is to open the door, acknowledge and validate them. This reminds me of an example of my then two- year-old son. He was asking for ice-cream before bedtime. My husband’s firm decline led to tears. Being told to stop, ironically, escalated the crying. So, I put him on my laps and said, “You are sad because you can’t have the ice-cream”. He nodded. Tears stopped, because his feelings were understood and respected.
Anxiety is often rooted in a weakened sense of self, which can be buried in the unconscious because of our defenses. I like to use sand tray and drawing (Interactive Drawing Therapy) to draw it out because they are less threatening. For example, a person might have social anxiety because she thinks “People reject me because I am not likable. Therefore, I am worthless”. When the core of the insecurity is out in the open, we can then challenge it by using, for instance, self-compassion and counter evidence.
Another useful idea is fact vs. thought from Action Commitment Therapy. For instance, if the core of what bothers a person is “I am useless”, I would encourage her/him to critically evaluate if this is a thought or a fact. If it is a thought (and most likely it is), we should just acknowledge it and let it go.
Quite often, we worry about things that are beyond our control. Especially these days when we are experiencing a pandemic, the control we have over this global disaster is limited. We cannot flatten the curve overnight in the world, and in NZ we cannot decide how long the border control will be and how many jobs are lost. But we can count our blessings, we can limit our time following news, and focus on the things we can control, like reading a good book and spending quality time with the children. When we think about it, we even influenced the curve in NZ by abiding to social distancing and lockdown. All the things that we can assert control over, gives us a sense of power and hope. Accepting the ones that we can’t, reduces anxiety.
Anxiety is a secondary emotion, which means there is usually a primary emotion underneath anxiety. The function of anxiety here is to “protect” us from the more painful and uncomfortable feeling such as hurt, grief, and fear. Therapy can help to unearth these feelings in a safe environment where they can then be processed. When we can acknowledge and accept our deepest experience and emotions, we are less likely to be interfered by anxiety.
Anxiety is believed to be a trapped energy. After unpacking the core of it, I sometimes facilitate releasing it by using chair work, for instance, talking to a relevant imagined person (such as a bullying manager) in an empty chair in the room. Clients often gain power and confidence through this process, and the tension is released.
Differentiation is another concept I advocate often, which is an indicator for maturity and psychological health. A new-born baby has no differentiation. They see their mothers as an extension of themselves. When we grow up, we start to develop differentiation, seeing ourselves as separate from others. No one is 100% differentiated. But the more differentiated we are, the less likely we are affected by how others perceive us. The more we see our worth independent of external judgements. This is powerful in freeing us from anxiety.
Anxiety can also be seen as a lack of security. A sense of secure attachment can be strengthened to reduce this. When I was starting my private practice, I was going through anxiety myself. When I lied in bed struggling to sleep at night, I asked myself what my fear was. It was “I am going to fail”. When I came to realize, “it is really a thought rather than a fact”, the anxiety eased. When I thought of my boys, their little faces, and the love between us, the anxiety lifted even more. I remembered how I used to sooth myself thinking about my dad when I was young. I am OK because my dad loves me. I am OK because my boys love me. This is unconditional no matter how “well” I am doing. I am safe and secure.
By Sherry Zhang Carter, specialized in anxiety, depression and relationship counselling
Copyright © 2020 Sherry Zhang Carter - All Rights Reserved.