Suppose you are selected for a secret mission. What’s at stake? Only the safety of this entire planet. The task ahead requires extreme mental and physical capabilities… and you must face this challenge alone—tomorrow at noon. How do you think you’ll sleep tonight?
Possible scenarios of the upcoming task will probably be running through your mind. Your thoughts might be racing and difficult to control. You will probably be extremely distracted, finding it difficult to perform even the most mundane tasks. You might be irritable and find yourself emotionally disconnected from your friends and loved ones. Even your body will respond as the awesomeness of your challenge takes control of your mind—you’re sweating, your heart is racing, and you’re even shaking. And since your mission is top-secret, nobody even understands what you’re going through. If you’re like me, you’re probably saying—no, screaming—“Pick somebody else!”
The symptoms I just described are commonly experienced by those who suffer from anxiety. Except they experience them when sitting in a classroom, playing ball, thinking about their finances, going on a date or even walking down the street. There is, however, a major difference between my hypothetical situation and the real-life examples. A person experiencing daily anxiety sees the rest of the world engaged in the same activities—without reacting the same way. He starts to think of himself as abnormal or crazy, and that only reinforces the anxiety. Many of my clients don’t understand what is happening to them. All they know is that their mind seems on steroids, their body feels hijacked and they desperately want relief.
The process of healing requires strength and perseverance, but is achievable. Here are three important tools that can help begin that process: 1. Normalization 2. Mindfulness and 3. Faith. These tools help the client feel less overwhelmed by his symptoms, allowing him to gain more control over the problem until the situation improves.
Step one is normalizing. Often anxiety has an effect on self-image, and the sufferer develops harsh judgments about himself. These negative thoughts breed shame and create a cycle where anxiety breeds more anxiety. Additionally, these self-judgments are unfortunately often reinforced by others who lack a basic understanding of anxiety and its debilitating effects. Anxiety sufferers need to understand that they are not crazy and nothing is inherently wrong with them; they merely suffer from a common condition that 18% of Americans cope with on a daily basis and shouldn’t be more stigmatized than ailments such as headaches or arthritis. When the client internalizes this message, he rids himself of much of the shame that he has learned to associate with anxiety.
The next tool is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to be present and aware in any given situation. The brain reacts to an anxiety-provoking event as if it was in danger; the fight, flight or freeze response kicks in and the ability to think is reduced. Being able to run from or fight real danger is necessary but not in our day-to-day interactions, for example when going on an interview. Being able to take a step back and perceive the present circumstance in a detached non-judgmental way diminishes the sense of being overwhelmed. It is useful to engage in self-talk such as, “Now I am feeling scared. My heart is beating fast and I’m worried that I will make a fool of myself.” Trying to fight these feelings is usually counterproductive, but mindful awareness and acceptance of them can be calming and empowering.
Faith is an important tool because it gives us perspective. We tend to think the way things are now are the way they’ll be forever, and many times that’s just not true. Faith in G-d who is in control and who loves us allows us to cultivate hope when we feel hopeless. This change of orientation encourages and motivates the client to continue on his path to effect meaningful change. Quite a few times, after feeling better, clients have told me, “I remember you told me in the beginning that the way I feel now is not the way it’s going to be forever.” This clearly was an important message for them.
A therapist can be an essential anchor in the often difficult process of change. A therapist, who can actively listen to what the client is going through, can act as a guide for the client. When we feel understood, life seems less lonely and a little less overwhelming. Only the client can travel the road towards a better life; the therapist, however, can provide the road signs, illumination and encouragement along the way.
Yonatan Sapir, MSc, is a psychotherapist specializing in treating anxiety. He is available to work with individuals, couples and adolescents in his Jerusalem or Beit Shemesh offices. Yonatan can be contacted at 052-767-7304 or firstname.lastname@example.org.