Helen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.
Stuck in an Anxiety Loop? Try a New Counselling Approach
Updated: Aug 21, 2020
Do you get anxious about social activities? Meeting certain people? Work events? Maybe even leaving the house? Anxiety is an important part of life, without it we wouldn’t be able to survive and yet when anxiety becomes a problem it can be devastating.
Let’s take a look at what can happen. For many of us, we feel anxiety about something that is perhaps a little outside of our comfort zone, like an exam or a party and that’s OK, we handle it, we maybe prepare a little more but it doesn’t actually stop us from doing whatever it is. Also in some circumstances our anxiety will fire up to warn us about something that could be harmful to us, after all, avoiding stimuli that can be dangerous is a vital survival strategy, so feeling anxious about walking down a dark street late at night is a probably a good thing right? But what can happen for some folk, especially people who have experienced trauma in the past, anxiety can take hold and every street can start to feel unsafe.
Early experiences that caused us distress or hurt often put our brain on a higher alert for danger, for situations, feelings, or experiences that could cause us pain or be harmful. This is when we can get stuck in a loop. It goes something like this: feel anxiety - try to push it away - feel distress - avoid thing causing anxiety - feel relief - teach brain that avoidance feels good – feel anxiety – try to push it away - feel distress - avoid – and it goes on and on and on. It can get to a point where anxiety has caused our world to get really really small because that’s the only size that feels safe.
Internal Family Systems (IFS) has a really neat counselling approach toward anxiety and trauma. IFS was first introduced by Richard Schwartz and it’s based upon the notion that we all have these different inner parts that have helped us stay safe over the years. So you might have an anxiety part, an inner critic part, a depressive part, an angry part – they all have jobs to do and they all do their jobs well because they are worried about us getting hurt. This works with anxiety because if you are avoiding being out in the world then you are less likely to be hurt or in danger. Same with depression, if you are feeling so lethargic, down, unmotivated that you can barely leave the house, then boom – kept you safe. These parts of ourselves are often from childhood and they don’t realize that we are grown up, we are strong, we are resilient, and we are able to keep ourselves safe, there’s just a disconnect between what our brain (or the child parts of ourselves) thinks is necessary and what we’re actually capable of.
So what do we do? Well traditional anxiety relief therapy might tell you to find ways to distract yourself to try and bring this anxiety under control. Well newsflash, you can’t control anxiety any more than you can tell yourself to stop being depressed. What the IFS approach would suggest, is that we actually start to connect with this part of ourselves and instead of pushing it away and having it push back we actually bring it closer. We ask that part what its job is, how long has it been around for and what the part is scared might happen if it wasn’t doing its job. We thank it for keeping us safe. Through doing this you will find out what your anxiety triggers are and how to speak to that anxiety part to calm it down – often in the same way you might speak to a child who is distressed or scared. Many counsellors, myself included, are influenced by the Internal Family Systems approach. It is incredibly gentle, compassionate, trauma informed, understanding and most importantly, effective. You can watch a short video about the IFS approach to anxiety here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQ-8LhokIro
Compassion is critical when working with our anxiety part, if we don’t take the time to get to know it and understand it then it’s not going to stop doing its job because, well, it works. You’re alive! You survived! Only, we want and deserve a little more than survival.
Just try the basic steps for yourself, check in with your anxiety part, ask it how long it has been around for, what its job is, and what would happen if it wasn’t there. Start to feel compassion for that part and connected to it, rather than feeling that you’re pushing it away and maybe ask it just to take a step back for a day and notice what happens for you. If you have a therapist, ask them about the Internal Family Systems approach. If you have any questions about counselling or anything discussed in this post please get in touch. Email me at email@example.com
Thanks for reading :)
Registered Clinical Counsellor
North Vancouver, BC