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Learning to Live With Anxiety

When Stella* came to see me, things were at the stage that she thought she might lose her job. She was ashamed because she was so anxious, she was finding it difficult to get into work in the morning. She would sit in the car park, sometimes for nearly an hour, before she would get into work. Once there she was checking her email and Facebook page excessively, making it difficult to focus and be productive. Her manager was concerned and talking to her about her performance, leading to an extra stress about the future in terms of her job and then paying the bills. She was trying to hide this from her husband who, she knew, was in fact very supportive. What Stella wanted when she came for therapy was to no longer be an anxious person.

The first step after having listened to Stella and made sure I understood her, was to start to understand what it meant for her to no longer be an anxious person. For Stella, she would be radiant and confident enough to apply for the promotion she had always wanted and never dared to ask for. For Stella, being confident meant no longer ever feeling anxious. Which was a problem as every time she felt anxious, she gathered evidence for being an anxious person and, for her, anxious people ended up divorced and on their own, as her mother had done, bitter at her failure and Stella’s father. Stella did not want to be like her mum.

One of the first things Stella had to learn was that while it was possible to stop playing the role of being an anxious person this did not mean that it was possible or desirable for her never be anxious, as she was hoping for. With her acceptance of that we were able to work at three different levels to help her overcome her difficulty.

The first was simple behavioural techniques for controlling her breathing by focusing which allowed her to start to calm herself and look at whatever situation she was currently facing. The second was to look at the situation itself and understand what she was anxious about. This often centred around work and allowed us to look at how she often rehearsed for failure and catastrophized, when things went even slightly wrong at work, to a situation where she ended up like her mother on her own, with no money and bitter. By stopping and breathing, Stella learned to take each situation as it came, finding that she could be creative in her solutions and that at work people started to value her opinion more. She became confident in her abilities and this allowed us to move to the third stage and look at the role of anxious person that she had been given and adopted growing up. We started to elaborate a new role for her, one where she became a confident person who could manage her anxiety and be able to get on. Which she eventually did by moving company to gain the promotion she always wanted.

*In order to protect the identities and confidentiality of people I work with, Stella is a composite character and the story told here is an illustrative one of how therapy can work for people who are anxious. The three step process outlined forms the basis of the Living With Anxiety workshop, I will be running on Saturday 29th November 2014, details of which can be found here.