Anxiety and its symptoms

Anxiety is rarely perceived in a positive light, but in truth, it is one of nature’s invaluable gifts to help us cope with life’s challenges. It helps us anticipate and avoid threats, prepares us to cope with difficult or challenging events and motivates us to take action in order to achieve our goals. When we embark on a new path or undergo life transitions, anxiety accompanies us as a protective measure. When present at the right moment and the appropriate level, anxiety is a very valuable asset. However, when excessive, anxiety can have tremendous destructive power over our lives, from daily disruptions such as tension, headaches, sexual dysfunction and insomnia to full blown anxiety disorders such as panic attacks, social anxiety, or phobias. In the long term, it can harm day-to-day functioning, relationships and greatly limit one’s potential.

Coping with anxiety

From our early years, we all develop ways to cope with anxiety. These may include humor, denial, repression, intellectualization, fantasy, avoidance, or excessive control over oneself and one’s environment. When coping mechanisms are inadequate, overwhelming feelings of anxiety may leave one feeling helpless and paralyzed. On the other hand, if our defenses against anxiety become excessive they can pose a serious problem in and of themselves. For example, a person suffering from social anxiety may develop emotional armor that protects him from anxiety but ultimately isolates him and closes him off to new experiences and growth.

The cognitive behavioral cycle of anxiety

Strong emotion of any sort, anger, sadness, even love, will distort our thinking. Indeed, anxious thoughts tend to be exaggerated and distorted, making even minor setbacks seem like enormous catastrophes. And behind most anxious thoughts is a belief about ourselves, others or the world around us. For instance, behind the thought “If I stop worrying, something bad will happen” may lie the belief “It’s a dangerous world and I must maintain control”; behind the thought “If I confront him he’ll leave me” may lie the belief “Anger is dangerous and will ruin a relationship”. These beliefs reflect our unconscious world view and fuel our thoughts and inner dialogue. Once we follow an anxious thought to its origin, we can identify the underlying belief and begin to question whether our thinking is realistic and helpful.

Along with anxious thoughts come anxious feelings. One who has never experienced an anxiety attack cannot imagine the accompanying feelings of terror, shame and helplessness, or the fear that one is experiencing a heart attack or going insane. Because anxiety can be so unsettling we often, consciously or unconsciously, try to deny, repress or avoid it, ultimately causing it to increase in strength. At each new encounter the threat looms larger and we feel weaker and more helpless. At other times we may struggle with anxiety-provoking situations head on in an effort to defeat it. But these fight or flight reactions have one thing in common: both are based on the perception of anxiety as an adversary.

Treatment for anxiety, social anxiety and panic attacks in the Haifa area, North Israel

Effective treatment of anxiety requires a counterintuitive approach that acknowledges anxiety as an inseparable part of ourselves. When we permit ourselves to experience our anxiety and learn to tolerate the accompanying physical and emotional sensations, over time it diminishes in intensity as our strength and confidence grow. Once therapy has brought anxiety to manageable levels, it can show us where we are vulnerable or stuck in our lives and where we have the potential to grow. It follows that our goal should not be to eliminate anxiety, but to learn to live with it and let it serve as our ally and teacher.