From the savannah to Sussex: dealing with anxiety

There is no long-term future on the African savannah for the complacent impala. As the take-away meal of choice for a wide range of hungry predators, the impala has much to be anxious about. If it is not alert to its dangerous environment it won’t survive the night.

Some anxiety is a natural part of our lives as well. It is part of being human. Anxiety helps us to survive too: we live in an uncertain world, even if it isn’t normally as dangerous as that of the impala. We cannot control all the events in our lives, or the actions of other people. So, we shouldn’t expect to be able to abolish anxiety entirely.

But as a counsellor and therapist in Hastings, Sussex, I often meet clients where anxiety has reached levels which get in the way of their lives.

High levels of anxiety can be prompted by the sense of loss which we all experience in our lives: bereavement, divorce, redundancy, ill-health, loss of youth and so on. Or extreme anxiety might be induced by the trauma of abuse, accidents or other searing life experiences as we grow up.

Anxiety at this level can be very distressing. So the temptation, often unconsciously, is to create defences against that anxiety – to take the edge off it so that we can try to continue to function. The defences then can give us the feeling of some control in our lives. Alcohol and drugs might provide some defence by anaesthetising the pain of anxiety.

For other people, phobias, eating disorders, avoidance and obsessive behaviour become their defences because they give an illusion of control. Even depression, dreadful though it is, can be seen for some people as a defence against experiencing the full pain of anxiety.

But what starts unconsciously as a defence risks becoming a bigger problem. Alcohol and drugs can become addictive. Phobias, eating disorders, and obsessions aimed at controlling events get in the way of normal living, jobs and relationships.

Counsellors have the experience to help clients explore what their defences really mean. Ultimately, most of the anxieties we all experience come from only a few existential sources: death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness. If clients can be helped to understand and reframe their anxieties in these terms through counselling, they should have a chance to survive for longer and more happily than the average impala.