Lately, the caseload in my counselling practice has been largely preoccupied with individuals who have self-diagnosed themselves with an anxiety disorder.
They often sit across from me during our sessions and lament that they experience feelings of worry about doing well on a long sought-after job interview or about completing a work project to their satisfaction. When I begin to ask them questions about their situation, they will invariably tell me that they ended up landing the job they had worried about or completed the work project successfully.
"So what exactly is the problem here?" I typically ask them. After all, they were able to work through their worry and accomplish what they had set out to do. In fact, they were able to use their worry as a motivator to push ahead and focus on the task at hand. Most of them, however, will respond to my question with "I just don't want to feel those feelings in the first place."
Where one is normal and healthy, the other is dysfunctional.
We all feel worried or anxious at times; that's what makes us human. Anxiety can be a healthy internal warning system for us to pay attention to something important. It's our body's way of signalling to us that something matters and needs to be done.
For me, a large component of being a mental health advocate and counsellor is educating the public. There is a difference between experiencing anxiety, now and then, and having an anxiety disorder. Where the former can be a helpful feeling that motivates us to act, the latter causes excessive, persistent and unreasonable fears that significantly impact our lives, including how we think, feel and act. Where one is normal and healthy, the other is dysfunctional.
For example, it's the difference between being squeamish when you discover your home has a cockroach infestation and having entomophobia (a fear of insects), which can be so bad that you may avoid being in your house at all costs.
Sure, nobody wants to share their home with unwelcome cockroaches. A heightened reaction to a home infestation is normal; it's what motivates you to call an exterminator to eliminate the problem. A phobia, on the other hand, would be a fear so strong that it may make you avoid ever eating or sleeping in your home again, even long after the exterminator has eliminated the problem.
Alternatively, a phobia may also look like you continuing to live in your home afterward, but enduring feelings of such severe distress that they interfere with your day-to-day life. In essence, a phobia is a disability that causes you cognitive, physiological and behavioural stress.
Phobias, like other anxiety disorders, are highly treatable with proper therapeutic interventions. Psycho-education and one-on-one counselling can help individuals explore and reduce their triggers by lowering their phobic avoidance of the object or situation that causes their exaggerated stress response. A good counsellor will teach you healthy coping strategies, such as anxiety management and calming skills, mindfulness, realistic and positive self-talk, and repeated exposures to the feared object or situation.
When I was younger, I had a phobia of animals. It was so bad that, when I would spot a dog walking toward me, I would have to cross the street to the opposite sidewalk to avoid coming into proximity with the dog. If I was at a park, my heart would race and my body would freeze in fear if I spotted any off-leash dogs frolicking about. I was so hyper-vigilant that I often avoided parks with known off-leash areas altogether.
It took a lot of inner work for me to get over my unreasonable fear of man's best friend. It wasn't easy to overcome; the work wasn't pleasant. But overcome this phobia I did. Today, most people would be shocked that I ever had this phobia at all, given I am such a devoted dog lover who opened my home and heart to an adorable dog who loved me unconditionally. Had I not overcome my excessive and persistent fear of dogs, I would have missed out on one of the greatest joys of my life.
There is a difference between casual feelings of fear or worry and full-fledged anxiety disorders, which cause significant impairment in the enjoyment of day-to-day life. Anxiety disorders are real and can be debilitating. But they are also highly treatable with the help of a good counsellor.
The goal of therapy isn't to make you stop feeling any and all anxious moments; as human beings, it is healthy for us to experience distressing moments from time to time. However, when your anxiety is getting so bad that it's preventing you from living a full life, you're probably dealing with an anxiety disorder. Understand the difference between the two, and recognize when to seek help.
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