What is anxiety?
In my previous post, Anxiety Treatment: Gestalt Therapy Theory, I explored what gestalt therapy theory says about anxiety. In this article I am going to concentrate on anxiety treatment from a gestalt therapy perspective.
We shall, for instance, consider anxiety, the pervasive factor in neurosis, as the result of the interruption of the excitement of creative growth (with accompanying breathlessness)… (Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality (Gestalt Journal Press Edition, 1994), p. 7)
This definitions highlights the connection between anxiety and excitement. Anxiety is what happens when excitement is held in and not expressed. This has important ramifications for anxiety treatment.
Why do we interrupt our excitement?
Two, often inter-linked reasons:
- There is not enough support in the environment
- We have learned to hold back because of a history of lack of support
Anxiety Treatment in Therapy
With a gestalt therapist you will explore your anxiety in a number of ways, all of which will increase your awareness of how you become anxious.
Body Awareness in Context
We will pay attention to the actual feeling of anxiety in your body. What does it feel like? If it is a tension, where is it, and how tense, and how do you feel paying attention to that tension? Is it in your chest, your throat, your big toe? Are you pulling in like a closing fist, or are you pushing against something? If it is fluttery or restless, what is the quality of that inner movement?
We will also notice just how it appears in session. What is the anxiety that comes when you talk about your partner like? How is that similar to or different from the anxiety that might happen before you begin to speak, when you are not sure what you will talk about in therapy? What about the anxiety of wondering how the therapist is thinking about you or if she is judging you?
Together we will search for clues in the bodily origin of your anxiety.
You can also do this on your own: when you have a pressure, a fluttering, a feeling that you would call anxiety, pay attention to it. What is it and how does it feel?
The meaning of your anxiety as a key to treatment
From the bodily experience or from the words you use to describe your anxiety, we will work to figure out what the anxiety is doing for you and what the symptom means. I would probably ask you to concentrate on the tension in your body, for instance in your chest. What is that tension saying? What is inside the tension? If your tension could talk, what would it say to me, to you, to the world?
Meaning is very personal, and in the meaning is an important piece of what is missing or what you need, which can help you figure out how to work with your anxiety.
What is an example of meaning? Someone who is anxious in crowds and finds the words to their anxiety are something like “leave me alone, get away from me”; someone else might say “I’m falling, I’m all alone, there is nothing to hold on to” and these two experiences would point to very different ways to experiment with finding what you need in the world and seeing how that impacts your anxiety.
What would you be feeling if you weren’t anxious?
Underneath a habitual anxiety is often another feeling that we aren’t in a position to express, because our environment doesn’t support it. Let’s say someone in your family of origin was abusive, and because you didn’t have the physical or emotional strength to fight back against this person you watched or experienced maltreatment and had to hold it in. You might have felt rage, or anger, or powerlessness and now you hold those things in as a matter of habit.
Anxiety always tries to do something for us, and it may be that it covers up or tries to neutralize a feeling that is—or was—impossible to express or feel fully.
This is a good question to ask yourself. What would you be feeling, thinking, experiencing if you weren’t anxious right now?
Experiment in Anxiety Treatment
Gestalt therapy is a therapy of excitement, experience and experiment. Nothing new happens until we are ready to risk the unknown. Experimenting in therapy is a safe way to explore your habitual patterns and what might happen if you tried something new.
For example, someone who habitually holds in her anger might gradually get interested in how she is doing it not only in her life but also in the therapy session. What does she want from me, or how does she want me to view her, when she holds it in? Is it necessary? How else could she get what she wants? Together we will look at any points of tension or mismatches in how she behaves, what she is getting and what she is intending and she may try expressing anger to see if what she fears will happen. With my support for something new to emerge, she will get new information about what is difficult for her.
For more information, try part one of this series, or part three on results of working with anxiety (to come).
Gestalt therapy is a lively, creative, powerful modality and if you are interested in trying this kind of work for acute or chronic anxiety feel free to be in touch. You can email me, call, or use my client portal to schedule a complimentary consultation.