Millions find themselves in its paralyzing grip every year. They tell us that it’s normal or that the solution is in a pill… or years and years of psychotherapy.
But what is anxiety really?
Anxiety is a state of mind.
If you were walking in the woods and were suddenly faced with a bear, you’d feel fear. This is a natural response. It keeps you safe, prevents you from getting yourself in unnecessary danger, and without it, you probably wouldn’t have made it this far in life. But anxiety is different.
Anxiety is fear of fear.
Almost every anxiety sufferer I have worked with can track back their anxiety to when it all began. When I ask, “When did this all begin?” They may say something like, “I have always been an anxious person,” but then they’ll tell me about the event that sent the whole thing out of hand. It’s almost always an intense experience of fear: a major life change which provoked intense fear and uncertainty, a panic attack, or even a bad experience under the influence.
What happens after this event?
The triggering event was so uncomfortable that the person wants to avoid re-experiencing it any any cost. They become terrified of the possibility of it happening again. They become afraid of fear itself.
What feeds anxiety is the principle of state dependency. All thinking is state dependent. This means that how you think is determined by what state you are in. If you’re in a state of anxiety, you’ll be thinking anxious and fearful thoughts, looking for danger and convinced danger is on the way.
What Characterized the State of Anxiety?
What does someone with anxiety do with their mind?
Think of the mind as a giant cinema: Imax screen, Dolby Digital surround sound, but minus the comfy seats. If the mind is a cinema, what is playing? What kinds of movies do you play? What quality of movies? To be anxious, one must play a very specific kind of movie.
The fear of fear sends the mind into the future, playing movies of frightening future scenarios of what could go wrong: the person will see themselves panicking, embarrassed in front of others and in other kinds of uncomfortable situations. The vivid mental imagery sends a powerful signal to the body: be afraid!
Every one of us has an internal voice and the way we use this voice will shape our experience. In cases of anxiety, once the movie starts, the person’s internal voice gets going: “What if I panic?” “What if others see? “What if I can’t get out?” This internal chatter is loud, fast and the tone is one of worry and panic. You can’t panic if that internal voice is slow, calm and quiet. It just doesn’t work.
And the body listens to the words and pictures.
Anxiety is a physiological response in the body, but could not be produced without the vivid fearful thoughts and scenarios.
Anxious thoughts —–> Anxious feelings
Once this pattern gets going, it takes on a life of its own. No matter how much people tell you to relax, to take it easy and that everything will be fine, your mind and body won’t listen. You are convinced at the unconscious level that you’re in danger.
Anxiety is a mistake of the mind.
The experience of anxiety is a powerful form of self-hypnosis. No matter how much medication you take, no matter how much you talk about it, breath deep or relax, unless the pattern is broken and updated, the experience will continue. The more one fights against the feelings of fear, the more they persist. The feelings are the symptom. The cause is the mental programming.
If we were to hire NASA’s best scientists and give them the task of creating a robot with anxiety, what would happen? They would fail miserably! Why? Because anxiety is a complex feat of the mind. Anxiety is a human achievement… It takes a massive amount of energy to have anxiety. You have to get yourself all worked up, heighten your body’s arousal and it can almost be like a full time job. What if you could you all this energy and mental focus for something useful?
Breaking the Pattern
Anxiety is a mistake of the mind and when a mistake has been made, there’s only one thing to do: go back and correct it.
Most people keep asking, “Why do I feel this way?” What they don’t realize is that anxiety is a process. In such overwhelming fear, they are unable to slow down and understand what is producing the response. What they need to do is ask, “How do I do this?”
The How Approach
Each time I work with someone suffering from anxiety, we explore how it works, what keeps it in place and uncover the causes behind the symptoms. This is the beginning of any effective “treatment.”
When these unconscious structures are brought into awareness the mystery ends. From there, we start to understand how to intervene, and some times the person knows on their own!
We work to break the pattern, like scratching a record until it won’t play anymore. They learn to play different movies in their mind, speak to themselves in more empowering ways and they transform their relationship with fear.
In working with sufferers of anxiety using the NLP approach, again and again I have found very similar patterns underlying the symptoms, and this is one:
Anxiety is often a signal with a valid message, but because the fear is so unpleasant, the tendency is to want to “get rid of the feeling,” which actually makes it worse. NLP processes help to uncover the “positive intention” of the symptoms and to make the necessary changes to accomplish that intention. In one session with an anxious client, our exploration revealed suddenly that her feeling of anxiety about a future event was actually a very valid message that she was unprepared for upcoming events. When she realized this, she had a very powerful desire to take necessary action to get prepared, a very different experience from her earlier paralysis in the face of the worries about the event not turning out well.