In the next few installments of “Tools” I will take up two of the most challenging human experiences, Anxiety and Depression, and the emotions that so often are at the root of these twin challenges to our happiness, Fear, Shame, Guilt, and Grief. In this first chapter, I will take up the challenges posed by Anxiety, an emotion almost all of us have experienced. In doing so, I will be looking at its etiologies and examining Psychologist Dr. Danie Beaulieu’s creative strategies for working with this much dreaded experience. Dr. Beaulieu describes the nature of anxiety and its causes more clearly than anyone I have found in my research on this subject.
In my psychotherapy practice I have learned that Anxiety can be seen as a warning signal that our psyche sends to us to let us know that something is the matter. It is an alarm that sounds in the body, the same way a burglar alarm goes off in our home or office. In other words it is a generalized internal phenomenon. Something is wrong inside us, but the signal doesn’t pinpoint exactly what it is. It calls on us to investigate further. Dr. Beaulieu emphasizes strongly that we should see this anxiety as a friend, an ally that is signaling us in the same way that the GPS in our automobile does. Anxiety tells us that somehow we have taken a wrong turn and need to recalculate where we are; we have gone off the track, headed in the wrong direction, or lost our way altogether.
One of the difficulties we have with the experience of anxiety is how alarming it feels to us. We feel shaky, nervous, and uncomfortable. Our hearts are suddenly beating faster. Our confidence in ourselves seems to be draining out of us, and is being replaced by an escalating uncertainty. We may fear that if we speak or try to take action, we will sound or look foolish. Our impulse is to withdraw and hide from whatever is unsettling us, most especially from the eyes that may be noticing our distress. How could this uncomfortable experience possibly be our friend?
In its most distressing form, anxiety arrives as a sudden panic attack, an intensely heightened experience of discomfort. Our hearts race wildly. We feel short of breath. Our bodies start shaking or trembling. We feel paralyzed with fear. This intense form of anxiety often arrives when we have failed to pay attention to earlier anxiety signals that were less intense. Our psyche seems to be saying, “You didn’t get my message the first few times I called you. Maybe this will get your attention!
If we take Dr. Beaulieu’s GPS metaphor seriously, we realize that an anxiety attack is a warning to us that something inside us is out of synchrony. We are temporarily lost, and we must listen more closely to learn what our friend anxiety is trying to tell us. My mentor Richard Olney would suggest to us that the uncomfortable body sensations we were having were messages that were being sent to us by an ally. He would ask us to imagine a non-humanoid creature that was located where the discomfort was coming from and suggest that we look inside ourselves to discover what this creature looked like. Once we had an image of it, we were to ask it, “What are you trying to show me, teach me, or tell me?” He would then suggest that we watch, listen to, and feel for whatever message our creature was sending to us.
Like Richard Olney, Danie Beaulieu creates metaphors for our psyche that activate our internal sensory awareness, and communicate to us that we have important resources that can be of great assistance to us. These resources can help us find satisfying and meaningful pathways for our lives. She suggests that we each have an essence that is unique to us, and that we also have an inner rhythm, a set of vibrations that we can feel, hear, and see if we will open ourselves to them. When I first encountered Dr. Beaulieu’s perspective on the psyche and on anxiety in her interview with Rich Simon, the editor and publisher of “The Psychotherapy Networker,” I was reminded that perhaps the most important thing that we psychotherapists can teach our clients is how to gain access to their interior life. Doing so allows them to discover the resources that are available to them. In order to help both ourselves and our clients find our way, we need a variety of understandings of the human predicament, and a variety of tools, methods, and metaphors that will activate our capabilities, competencies, and confidence. Allow me to introduce the Founder of the Impact Academy, Dr. Danie Beaulieu. I hope to summarize her remarkable understanding of the creative role of the psyche’s GPS, the resource signal we call Anxiety.
If we begin to see the Anxiety that originates at different locations on our internal circuitry as a warning signal, we can awaken to certain dangers to our integrity, and we can begin to see how Anxiety can be our friend, our co-therapist, and our ally. When this alarm signal manifests in our bodies, it asks us to recognize the nature of the distress we are facing, and it begins to point to particular solutions that will align us with who we truly are. According to Dr. Beaulieu, there are several different points on the compass of the psyche that our Anxiety GPS responds to. First, our Anxiety may be asking us to get in touch with our repressed needs and fears. If, in our desire to please our parents, our teachers, or our peers, we have moved away from our essence, our GPS will sound an alarm. If we have, for example, chosen work or schooling that is not aligned with who we truly are, anxiety will be activated. Over the last few years, I have had several highly intelligent young women as clients, whose fathers convinced them to become Lawyers. Although each of them was able to pass the Bar, they were each plagued by anxiety and distress over abandoning something they loved. The results of their realigning themselves are that two happy Yoga Instructors and one delighted Life Coach are excited and happy with their life’s work.
The second point on our inner compass has to do with our level of potency vs. our level of vulnerability. If we are trying to do too much and are depleting our energy and life force, the GPS is likely to sound an alarm. We may come to a particular situation that we feel obligated to participate in, only to discover that our energy supplies are running on empty. If we are attuned to ourselves, we will recognize that we are on the verge of an anxiety attack. Our GPS is calling “Time Out” so that we can rest and recharge our batteries. Dr. Beaulieu points out that we cannot only inhale. We must exhale, relax and rest in order to feel empowered and confident. The longer we wait to replenish ourselves, the stronger the warning feelings of anxiety will sound. This is our limbic system telling us we are “dead tired” and on the verge of collapse. The result is an escalating heartbeat and intense feelings of exhaustion.
The third stop on our internal circuitry occurs when anxiety signals our lack of competency. We have all experienced this when we have failed to prepare adequately for a big exam, or when we don’t give ourselves enough time to do a good job on a paper, or a presentation we want to make. Many times anxiety will let us know that although we want to do something that is important to us, we don’t really know how to do it well. Children often don’t know how to adequately communicate something they need to tell their parents. Both men and women feel vulnerable when it comes to expressing their feelings to someone they are very attracted to and would like to get to know. At these junctures, a therapist or a life coach can be extraordinarily helpful in demonstrating what effective communication looks and sounds like.
The fourth point on our internal circuitry has to do with each of us having an internal garbage bag inside us that may be full of shame and guilt. Even if we close it and cinch it as tightly as possible, it still has a foul odor. Anxiety can remind us that we are hiding something inside us and that no matter how much energy we use to keep it hidden and closed, it still reeks. What we need to do is look inside the bag to discover what we are trying to hide. Only then can we begin to empty the bag. In Twelve Step programs, these actions are the Fourth and Fifth Steps, taking a fearless and searching moral inventory of guilty and shameful secrets and then pouring them out by talking to someone we trust. By expressing what we feel guilty and shameful about we begin to liberate ourselves from our burdens. Meanwhile whatever we continue to hide secretly in our bag will create barriers between ourselves and those we love.
The fifth point on our inner circuitry has to do with our thinking and our attitudes. Dr. Beaulieu uses an old cassette tape as the metaphor for old ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and patterns that we hold onto even though they no longer serve us. We continue to play these old recordings in our heads despite the fact that they have no real relevance for us. These old ideas and beliefs are very familiar to us though. So sometimes our desire to rid ourselves of them will also cause us anxiety, the closer we come to letting go of these relics of familiar misery. Here our GPS can alert us to our outdated beliefs and to attitudes that are rooted in our past and are no longer working for us in the present.
Anxiety can also alert us to the reality that we are eating the wrong foods and ingesting things that are not good for our bodies, perhaps to the point of starting to poison ourselves. Drinking too much caffeine or alcohol, or eating too much sugar, salt, and fat will set off the inner GPS as a protest to what we are doing to ourselves. The body responds to being poisoned and malnourished with feelings that are very similar to anxiety.
Anxiety can also be the result of hormonal imbalance. If you notice that anxiety or distress comes up at a certain point in the month every month or every other month, your GPS is likely signaling you about a hormonal issue. A high percentage of women and teenagers will experience warnings about hormonal issues from the anxiety GPS.
The final point on our energetic circuitry where anxiety may arise has to do with not respecting our inner rhythms. If we are trying to be superheroes who excel at everything we do, if we are trying to cram as much as possible into each and every day, if we are engaging, but never disengaging, we are likely to hear warning signals from the engine room. When that happens, it is time to slow down and listen to yourself, to get in touch with how depleted you may feel, and to respect your inner rhythms and needs. If you accelerate your pace more and more, you will find that you are getting on everyone’s nerves including your own! Listen, refocus, and embrace your life force in a nurturing, respectful, and playful way.
Learning to recognize the meaning of these signals of discomfort, and responding to them in a timely way, can greatly enhance the pleasure and satisfaction we find in being alive. We do need to give ourselves permission to seek the help we need, if we are not clear about where our uncomfortable feelings are coming from. Reading articles like this one and seeking out relevant information on websites or in books may be sufficient for you to begin to make the changes you need to make, but do give yourself permission to seek the assistance of a good psychotherapist or life coach who has experience and expertise in helping people find their way through life’s challenges. I hope you find this article helpful, and that you will go to Dr. Beaulieu’s website to see all the resources and information that she makes available there.
Unfortunately, I do not have space to consider all of Danie Beaulieu’s creative metaphors in this particular article. Nor, I am sorry to say, have I been able to capture the passion and enthusiasm she brings to her presentations. To experience her enthusiasm and delightful clarity you must go to the Psychotherapy Networker website that I mention below, and to her Impact Academy website as well . I will discuss more of her metaphorical tools in my next installment of “Tools of Transformation.” I will also take up another source of Anxiety that deserves very specific and precise explication, the anxiety caused by traumatic injury, whether in abusive childhood experiences, or severely hurtful and frightening adult experiences. Severe blows to the psyche create very deep fears that inhabit a space close to the core of the Self, and which require a deeper level of healing than the sources of Anxiety discussed in this installment.
I offer my deepest gratitude to Dr. Danie Beaulieu for her permission to discuss her beautiful, creative, and highly effective work with Anxiety, and for her exciting and informative interview with Dr. Rich Simon which is offered for training purposes by the Psychotherapy Networker, as part of their six part seminar on Anxiety. Dr. Beaulieu’s website can be found at www.impactacademy.net. There you will find a “Free Goodies” button that will lead you to several different resources to aid you in overcoming, working through, and moving beyond Anxiety. You will also find articles and YouTube videos by Dr. Beaulieu that discuss her therapeutic approaches.
I offer my sincere thanks to Toby Landesman for her creative photographs and to Valerie Pierce for her portrait of Smokey, who posthumously represents the little creatures inside us who can teach us many things about ourselves, our needs, and desires.
Toby Landesman’s photos are available on her website.
The Website for the Psychotherapy Networker and its remarkable seminars can be found at: www.psychotherapynetworker.org.
Great thanks for your readership and for any comments you leave for me here!
Article written by Tom Goforth
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.