We all experience anxiety from time to time.
Think of the first presentation you gave in school. Think of those agonizing minutes before a job interview. Then think of your first day at the new job. Think of your first date, your first dance, your first party. This list is endless.
Anxiety is a normal experience everyone goes through at some point in their lives.
In fact, research shows that mild forms of anxiety are healthy and motivate us to perform better and improve ourselves.
We run into problems when anxiety spins out of control.
When we overanalyze every social interaction, when we constantly worry about things in our lives we can’t change, when we are unable to sleep because our mind is racing. Problems occur when anxiety begins to affect our ability to function normally.
It is this second, more severe form of anxiety that scientists distinguish as an anxiety disorder.
And these anxiety disorders can take a serious toll on your life. They ruin relationships and work performance. They can lead to depression and more serious mental health problems.
So, what do you do if you experience this more severe form of anxiety?
It is helpful to understand the different forms of anxiety.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identifies five main types of anxiety disorders. Let’s tackle each separately.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD is characterized by chronic anxiety and overthinking, usually with little or nothing to provoke it.
Common symptoms include not being able to fall asleep because your mind won’t shut down, intrusive thoughts that make you anxious even if you try to avoid thinking about them, an overwhelming feeling of dread and uncertainty and the need to constantly plan everything to the smallest detail.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD is characterized by obsessive thoughts that people avoid by performing repetitive actions, also known as compulsions.
These compulsions include things like spending hours washing the house even though everything is clean, rearranging pencils, pens, furniture and other household items for no apparent reason, accumulating useless junk (hoarders anyone?) and constantly double checking things like locks, appliances or switches.
- Panic Disorder
People with panic disorder experience unexpected and repeated episodes of great fear that are usually accompanied by physical symptoms, such as chest pain, heart palpitations, or breathing problems.
Panic attacks often occur in response to severe stress, such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or divorce. They also often take place during major life transitions, like graduating from college, getting married or having a baby.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
You may have heard of PTSD as it is often the theme of war films. PTSD is triggered by traumatic events that take place in a person’s life, whether as a child or an adult.
Soldiers coming home from war often experience PTSD in response to what they saw on the battlefield. PTSD also occurs among people who have survived car accidents or natural disasters, as well as those who suffer severe assault, robbery or rape. It can also be caused by drug use such as overdosing or a ‘bad trip’ using a hallucinogenic. Symptoms include flashbacks, bad dreams and frightening thoughts, especially when alone.
- Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
People with SAD, also known as social phobia, experience exaggerated anxiety and self-conscious thoughts during every day social interactions. This can include an intense fear of speaking, eating, or drinking in front of others or even just being around other people.
Symptoms include being extremely worried about what other people think about you, fear of being judged or made fun of, feeling very self-conscious around others and doing everything not to offend other people.
How psychoanalysis can treat anxiety disorders
Anxiety disorders tend to worsen over time if left untreated. And while short-term medication can temporarily relieve symptoms, often this does nothing to treat the root cause of the disorder.
This is where psychoanalysis may help.
What is Psychoanalysis?
Psychoanalysis is based on two tenets. The first is that people are unaware of all the activity that goes on in the unconscious part of their mind. Think of a car. You may know how to drive, but you may not have any idea of the intricacies of how the engine works. The same can be said of our mind. We are conscious of only a fraction of all the thoughts,feelings,and activities going on in our mind. The rest of our mind remains out of our awareness.
The second tenet is that a person’s past has a major impact on their life today as well as may hold the key to their current anxiety symptoms. Our history, our experiences and our daily life impacts our thinking, moods, and behavior to the extent that it informs our present life. In psychoanalysis what is expressed from a patient, can also be seen as a description of what is happening in the present moment as well as in the here and now between the analyst and the patient. Therefore, the patient’s anxiety can be understood and modified in the moment.
Contemporary psychoanalysis helps people become aware of their conflicts which may be the source of their anxiety disorder. Once patients understand these issues, they often find relief from their symptoms and have a more integrated narrative of their life..
For example, people with social anxiety may learn through contemporary psychoanalysis that their social anxiety stems from a childhood experience of being bullied in school or getting made fun of. Once the patient realizes how this early negative experience has informed their perception of the people around them, it can give them newfound confidence in social settings or possibly debunk the old way of thinking.
Does psychoanalysis actually work?
You may be thinking this sounds great but the idea that somebody who has been experiencing anxiety for a majority of their life might be able to magically transform themselves in a few sessions is probably unrealistic.
Well actually, the evidence points in the other direction. Studies have shown that psychoanalysis can indeed be a very effective treatment for anxiety disorders.
The American Psychological Association says the following:
“Anxiety disorders are very treatable. The majority of patients who suffer from anxiety are able to reduce or eliminate symptoms after several (or fewer) months of psychotherapy, and many patients notice improvement after just a few sessions.”
The evidence points to psychoanalysis being an effective treatment for anxiety disorders.
Psychoanalysis assumes people have deep, underlying and repressed issues that are the source of current problems. But as mentioned earlier, severe anxiety issues sometimes develop in response to short-term circumstances like major life changes, having a baby, graduating or losing a job.
It is therefore very important for a patient to understand what their anxiety could be a response to, whether it is something they have struggled throughout their life or if it is something that has recently triggered anxiety.
Either way psychoanalysis is helpful, since it can illuminate the concealed layers of the persons’ mind where the conflict resides. The psychoanalytic relationship is a vehicle to discover the patients’ difficult thoughts, feelings and behaviors, when understood it can alter the underlying anxiety. Perhaps it is time to give psychoanalysis a try.