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understanding what causes anxiety

When I'm with a client who tells me they feel anxious, my usual question is, "What does that mean to you?" In other words, I'm not concerned or interested in the opinions found on Google or in dictionaries about what anxiety is. We've become accustomed to viewing anxiety as a problem and creating solutions to eliminate or reduce this problem without truly understanding the root causes.

When someone speaks of anxiety, it means they are having a sensory experience, feeling something in their body. It might be restlessness, a pressure in the chest, an incessant "mind racing," or a fear of losing control or that something bad will happen. This is where we need to start, by listening to what the body has to say.

Anxiety is a symptom indicating that there is some kind of danger. In other words, it serves an extremely useful function when the danger is real. However, most of the threats we face in our daily lives are not real dangers. A real danger would be a threat to our physical integrity or life, such as someone pointing a gun at us or being attacked by a wild animal. In such cases, the body reacts to the external situation, preparing to fight or flee. If it believes it can overcome the danger, it fights; otherwise, fleeing is another option.

So, in simple terms, someone experiencing anxiety believes there is a danger that needs to be faced, or in other words, "something bad is going to happen." It is our perception of danger, not the situation itself, that activates the internal mechanism we call anxiety. Whenever we don't feel safe, these mechanisms become active.

Here's another question: What happens when this fight-or-flight mechanism gets "frozen in time"? What occurs when we have neither the option to fight nor to flee in a particular situation? If the brain perceives that there is no chance to escape or fight, it triggers a shutdown mechanism, similar to an animal "playing dead." This happens to prevent us from feeling the intensity of certain sensations. This mechanism, among other things, causes muscles to tense up and contract to avoid feeling pain.

For instance, when we express our irritation as children and are punished for it, we end up suppressing that expression. Or, when we are very joyful and expressive, others may make us feel like we're "too much." If we cry, we might be told, "only girls cry." Consequently, we interpret that these parts of ourselves are "wrong" and hide them to be accepted and included.

So, where does anxiety fit into all of this? All these parts of ourselves that got "lost" in time want to express themselves naturally, and we're not allowing that to happen. It's an essentially unconscious mechanism, which is why it's crucial to start bringing these hidden and suppressed parts into our consciousness.

The fear is that something that happened in the past might happen again. We're afraid of reliving the sensations, feelings, or emotions from previous experiences, so we hide them. When we lack the maturity to process certain emotional states, we disconnect from those sensations. Consequently, we may feel that there is a danger in ceasing to avoid emotions.

The danger is not so much what might happen. What we fear is our own emotions. We're afraid of feeling fear. So, we're constantly running away, and the best way to escape is into our heads and the world of thoughts. Over time, various symptoms manifest in the body. It may start with anxiety, then progress to chronic pain, migraines, tension here and there, or even illnesses.

In summary, the anxiety we feel is our constant pressure not to feel certain emotions.

This approach doesn't work; it only intensifies our feelings. So, if we genuinely want to feel lighter and more at ease, it's essential to take the body out of emergency mode by helping it process what needs to be processed. To do that, we need to stop running and stop fighting against the sensations felt in our bodies. We need to stop running away from ourselves and have the courage to look at what we've become accustomed to hiding. Some things we are aware of, others not so much.

Not necessarily easy, but it's much more challenging to live disconnected from our bodies and emotions. When we understand what it takes to reconnect, we become more open and available to do so, gradually feeling more complete and aligned with our natural state. Inner peace, freedom, and joy are natural consequences of having the courage and ability to stop running away from ourselves.

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