Thursday, February 11, 2010

Why are you anxious?

Why are you anxious?

I've been a psychologist in private practice for over
twenty years. Every day I see anxious people. In fact,
anxiety is one of eight conditions that almost every patient has.
Anxiety is everywhere and interferes with almost everything.
The most common experience of anxiety is when something
"pops up" that is threatening. In dynamic terms, that
"something" is not a "something" we can control. It might be
having to take a drivers test at the DMV. It might be going
to the doctor for a condition we do not understand. It might
be big, like an IRS audit.
Or, that "something" might be the emergence of thoughts,
feelings and/or memories that we want to suppress
(consciously bury). There might be a cue or trigger that
elicits anxiety in response to the emergence of such thoughts
and/or feelings, but for most people, that cue or trigger is
not usually in awareness. For most people, anxiety just
Anxiety has several causes. In my practice, there are
three general areas that produce it. The first reason is
that we learned to deal with stress in the manner
characteristic of having an anxiety attack. We learn it,
probably from parents or early caregivers. Parents who are
high suppressors teach us to bury our feelings and thoughts.
They do so by example. We pick it up by observing them deal
with stress, and then later when we have stress, we start to
react in the same ways. This is the psychological breeding
ground for anxiety. It spawns dynamics that later produce
anxiety symptoms, plus potentially other conditions
(depression, marital failures, lack of assertiveness).
How many and how severe are the symptoms depends upon the
training in one's early environment and the personality
learning the lessons. I have seen very constitutionally
strong individuals withstand severe stress and later show
very little signs of anxiety (perhaps depression, but not
much anxiety). On the other hand, I have seen very weak
individuals experience minimal early anxiety, yet later in
life have horrific anxiety symptoms. Humans are complex.
The second common cause of anxiety is that there has
been some severe enough bad experience or negative event in
our past that we do not want to remember, yet it traumatized
us enough so that we had to suppress or repress it.
This could be an accident, being trapped in a cave or other
venue, loss of a relative or a history of child abuse
(emotional, physical or sexual). It could have happened
once or many times. Adult traumas also produce anxiety
disorders. The same things that happen to children might
have the same impact on an adult. Being victims of a crime
(rape, burglary) or a near-death experience from an accident
can all produce panic and/or phobias later.
The third reason is because of substance or alcohol abuse,
either in our parents or currently in our partners, or even
in ourselves. Drugs produce huge anxiety symptoms,
especially the "speeds" ("X" or "E" as it is called now,
amphetamines, Black Beauties, Cocaine, Crystal Meth ...).
And, one might not think alcohol can elicit an anxiety reaction,
but it can. It has to do with that feeling of relaxing, which
for some people is a cue that they are about to lose control.
Losing control is very negative and can trigger tension.
Drink a beer to relax and have a panic attack. Go figure.
Alcohol in one's early family life engenders lots of anxiety.
Kids learn very early to be on guard when one of their parents
are alcoholic. This keeps them on alert, which has survival
value. The earlier one can ascertain in what state an arriving
parent is in, the better the chance of figuring out how to cope
with that parent. That anticipation does not go away just
because kids grow up and move away.

Dr. Griggs

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