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More PsychNotes: Anxiety

June 4, 2015       
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Listening to the Message of Anxiety
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Recently, an acquaintance described feeling anxious and stated she needed to get some anxiety medication from her doctor. She said, "My family treats me so bad whenever I visit them that when I even think of visiting I get heart palpitations. My husband hates seeing them, too, and its affecting my marriage."

Mr. Zip

This example illustrates not listening to anxiety. Normal anxiety has a purpose. The intention of anxiety is to inform us of a problem that needs to be resolved. However, sometimes people don't want to address a problem because it might be uncomfortable. In this situation, simply telling her family "It is unacceptable for you to talk to me this way and if you continue I will leave" places the responsibility for the problem on them. Sure, such a stance may be unpleasant initially especially when she has to follow through with the consequence and walk out. For this woman, she did not want to give her family reason to treat her worse. Even though it may be uncomfortable standing up to such people, by resolving the problem she doesn't have to take medication for the anxiety nor put her husband in a situation that creates problems in her marriage. Eventually, if she consistently gives her family this message they may begin to treat her better. And if they don't, she can give them another message: "I don't want to be around you because I don't like how you treat me."

However, when the problem isn't solved such situations can even be the beginning of developing an anxiety disorder. I have seen many clients over the years who have described their first panic attack as being related to a distressing situation they believed they couldn't control or resolve. Later, however, their anxiety became focused on the panic itself creating the panic cycle. In such situations I've always found it interesting that the panic attacks often solve the original problem in a roundabout manner: "I have a panic attack every time I try to drive long distances--I haven't been able to visit my family in years." In this way the panic is blamed rather than solving the problem in more direct ways: "I really want to come for a visit but I'm having uncontrollable panic attacks."

We may not always like the message anxiety is attempting to deliver. However, listening to the message and resolving the problem can prevent worsening of the anxiety. If the message is ignored, anxiety only becomes more insistent about delivering it. Once the message has been addressed, the anxiety has completed its job until another problem arises.



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Dr. Monica Frank



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