Just like the doorbell rings to alert us to the arrival of a guest, anxiety tells us that some core emotion buried within us is pushing to be expressed.
Take, for example, Heather, a 35-year-old women who has been working in a law firm for the past five years. Heather came to my office a year ago. When she first stepped inside the door, she smiled softly and looked at me with kind eyes. This was the first time, she had visited a therapist’s office, and I could tell she was feeling nervous. I heard it in her shallow and restricted breath and saw it in her wide eyes, as she began to tell me, that her anxiety was making it hard for her to enjoy things, that used to bring her joy and relaxation.
While growing up, Heather experienced the normal fears of a child. She worried about the dark, about robbers, not being liked by friends, and she feared that the family would run out of money, since her dad left.
Unfortunately, because her mom was overwhelmed by raising a big family alone and by caring for Heather’s younger sister, who had a chronic health issue, none of Heather’s normal fears were processed with a knowing adult.
In fact, when Heather expressed her fears, her mom reacted by telling her to grow up and be strong. Instead of helping Heather, her mom turned the tables and said she needed Heather’s help with all the responsibilities around the house. Heather, of course, loved her mom profoundly and did not wish to burden her, so she trained herself over time to repress her fears and manage on her own.
As it is most often the case, repression of fear leads to anxiety. We push down a fear, but the energy of it stays with us, resulting in a generalized anxiety. This is what happened to Heather. And because anxiety is quite uncomfortable itself, Heather tried to repress it as well. She coached herself to avoid situations that triggered her worries. While repression can soothe the immediate effects of fear, ultimately those fears get stored in the body. By repressing her fears and anxiety, Heather was filling herself up with many unmet negative and scary emotions.
During her teens, social anxiety set in, and Heather began to experience physical stress from all her repressed emotions. Neck pain, muscle tension, headaches, shortness of breath and occasional panic kept her home from school and allowed her to avoid going places with her friends. When the anxiety felt this pervasive, Heather discovered she could distract herself from her emotions by playing games on her phone.
The problem is that core emotions that are essential to the human experience and to healthy growth and development—sadness, anger, fear, and even excitement—get blocked by anxiety because we have learned from our cultures, families, or peer groups, that these emotions are not welcome. Heather, who seemed to have found a way around her need to process her emotions with her mother as a child, was now trapped in a terrible cycle of repression, anxiety and avoidance. She didn’t feel good, and she was unhappy, unable to enjoy life.
In our work together, I taught Heather some breathing techniques to help soothe her immediate anxiety, and I helped her see the connection between her anxiety and the powerful survival mechanisms that she acquired growing up.
Now, Heather has learned that when she feels anxious, there is something she can do to ease her pain and confusion. She slows down by tuning into her body and anchors herself with breath. Once she feels anchored, she looks for the underlying core emotions that are being blocked by her anxiety. When she locates them, she understands them more fully and gives herself the positive, tender attention that her mother was unable to give her when she was young.
This relieves the anxiety in the immediate, but it also keeps it from coming back so intensely the next time. Eventually, the anxiety disappears because the core emotions are being dealt with.
If you are experiencing anxiety, working with a therapist to understand your unique story of repression can be very helpful. Your therapist can teach you important breathing techniques and show you how to process the fears and emotions the anxiety is blocking.
Like Heather, you deserve to be happy and enjoy life!