Science offers us many tools to blunt the symptoms of anxiety. Benzodiazepine medications like Klonopin and Xanax, though much-maligned as addictive, are also very effective in reducing extremely painful, even paralyzing, symptoms of anxiety. Ketamine treatments can be very helpful. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation has its place. Yet, with all these and other treatments for anxiety, it would be a big mistake to not uncover the underlying source of one’s anxiety.
Yes, genetics can play a role in making a person’s neurochemistry tend toward less serotonin and, therefore, pave the way for a person experiencing anxiety. But I have never met a single person struggling with anxiety whose life story doesn’t hold essential information about what set the stage for it. The relevant “pages” of one’s life story could be recent or in the distant past, but they exist and need to be uncovered and understood, in order to create peace of mind. The same can be said of low or erratic mood, by the way.
I’ll give you just one example. One of my clients who struggled with profound anxiety grew up in a family that didn’t foster autonomy or independence. He was discouraged from voicing independent ideas, discouraged from going away to camp, discouraged from going away to college and constantly asked whether he might be feeling ill. It didn’t take years for him and I to unearth these toxic messages that were the soil in which his anxiety had taken root; we were already talking about these dynamics within a few hours of beginning our work together. And once we clarified those dynamics and uncovered others, his anxiety began to decrease. He was able to keep the medicine his psychiatrist prescribed him at very modest levels. He began working on a business project he had always hoped to pursue.
A psychologist friend of mine has remarked to me that human beings should probably be born at 14-years-old, because being exposed to complex interpersonal dynamics earlier than that creates symptoms like anxiety and mood swings. Because a child of 6 or 8 or 11 years old can’t look at those dynamics objectively and avoid fallout from them. To the child, the dynamics seem normal. How would my client, for example, have known that his mother’s constant questioning of whether he felt ill was anything other than love and concern? How could he have known that he was being molded into worrying about whether his well-being was constantly at risk?
Of course, he couldn’t have known. We needed to journey back and uncover that counterproductive pattern of communication and others, in order for him to move past them (as an adult) and pave the way for more confidence, greater optimism and higher self-esteem.
How does this happen? Why would understanding the toxic messaging or traumatic events or suboptimal communication patterns in one’s life—whether fairly recent or quite long ago—result in an emotional and spiritual reset and set someone free to live a more powerful life? Here’s the answer: Human beings are narrative beings. Having a firm and complete grasp of the life one has already lived—including early chapters of it—is essential to being able to firmly grasp control of one’s life today. And nothing other than that firm sense of control will do.
Dr. Keith Ablow
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