Those of us in the counseling field understand anxiety can be thought of as either a precursor or reaction to fear.
When anxiety is initially triggered, it is usually as a warning of potential danger to come. (For example, when the doorbell rings for the fourth time and our client realizes just how many kids are coming over for the sleepover.) On the other hand, if a client is on their way home to an abusive partner, then anxiety is a response to a known fear
We all experience an anxious situation now-and-then. However, for many of the clients we treat, “now-and-then,” manageable anxiety has become an oppressive force that invades and erodes their everyday lives. These larger-than-life feelings can take over and trick them into labeling themselves as, “weird,” or “too much,” and, in well-meaning efforts to protect themselves and others, they may let go of valued relationships, which often makes things worse rather than better.
Consider the following all-too-common story:
Wendy’s life is fast. There are kids to take care of, reports to write, clothes to wash, meals to cook, trips to plan, cars breaking down, people to visit, and that’s just before noon! Nothing can slip. Nothing can go unnoticed – and yet, of course, it does. All. The. Time. Wendy feels like a failure and her anxiety is palpable. With a core belief supported by popular media that she should be able to “do it all” by herself, no one knows how much she struggles. Despairing, Wendy wonders what is wrong with her and why she can’t just “do it all.”
First of all – there is nothing wrong with Wendy. Most of our clients would agree! They would also relate. The society in which we live tells us constantly that we can “do it all!” It is simply not the truth.
The truth is, we have limits and we are only truly free—truly ourselves—when we live joyfully within them. Due to the overwhelming societal and media pressure, our clients often know this but do not actually live it.
Some ideas to help your clients with this are:
- Use their environment. Have clients put up sticky notes, put things near the front door that they will need tomorrow, take their clothes out the night before and set them in the bathroom, create quiet, calm, and peaceful places within their house (no screens) where you can go to relax and decompress. You get the idea.
- Create routines. One of the problems with all the things Wendy has to do is the sheer amount of conscious brain power needed to remember it all. Doing daily tasks the same way, every time, helps the activity slip from a possibly over-taxed conscious mind to the more robust, unconscious mind – which is capable of more easily holding a lot more information.
- Make lists and use planners. No – you are not weak if you write it down. Research shows if we write things down, they are much more likely to be done. Invest in some little pocket notebooks or use a phone app. Every time your client thinks of something they need to remember later, write it down. Trips they want to take, appointments they need to attend, that dress they liked in that store, all their worries and gripes. Write it all down.
- Plan your worry time. Yup. That’s right. Give your poor pre-frontal cortex a break. Encourage your client to stop trying to jam it full of everything all the time when research shows that it can only process seven things at any one time. Have your client identify—each day—a time when they can sit down, without interruption, with their list of worries (see number 3 above), and mindfully make plans. Teach them to let go of thinking about it at other times.
The most important message our clients can hear is, “You are not bad for having anxiety.”
Anxiety is an illness, not a character flaw.
There is much we can do to effectively manage unhelpful emotions.