In my last blog I wrote about different types of anxiety and ways of dealing with them. But what are some of the causes of the crippling problem that anxiety can be? Well, there are as many causes as there are types of the condition. For example, there’s probably something different going on for a person who feels trapped in cinemas and a person who’s hoarding large numbers of old TVs. Or one who worries about everything. But there are common factors. There’s some evidence of a biological component to anxiety. And at the psychological level the common denominator is the sense of a looming threat to one’s safety which can be conscious or buried right out of awareness.
Threats from early years
The roots of the feeling of threat are often in childhood and we may not have made the connection between them and the anxiety we’re feeling now. Perhaps we were confronted with the possibility of annihilation in one form or another. It could have been an event such as a traumatic birth or, even earlier, something that happened to us or to our mother while we were in the womb. Or there may have been a parent who was a terrifying presence and who we thought could destroy us or seriously harm us. Or maybe it was simply parents who were themselves hyper-anxious and who passed that on to us through constant exposure to them. The message may have been communicated that the world is a very dangerous place indeed.
Then, later in life, challenging situations can – perhaps quite unconsciously – trigger those early feelings and assume an exaggerated and unnecessary menace. The ancient and maybe unconscious origins of the anxiety may explain why it’s often so hard to calm the fear in the present.
If the threat in the past was not about annihilation it may have been about separation from someone. Events such as a parent dying or going away for what seemed a very long time can create an utter sense of loss, panic, loneliness or a frightening void. So if, for example, a relationship breaks up it can resurrect those feelings in the here and now. Or it might lead to clinging behaviour in relationships to try and prevent them ending – clinging behaviour which may have an opposite effect to that intended. The controlling behaviour might extend to one’s own children who have to be kept under wraps in case they succumb to some misfortune which makes them go away.
Another type of threat from years ago may have been linked to punishment, including punishment for unacceptable desires. Profound guilt may result along with the anticipation of retribution. Thus an adult may have an inappropriate and exaggerated anxiety that a boss, for instance, is going to come down hard on them for any minor failing. It may be hard to have a relaxed, grown-up relationship with the boss for fear of the axe falling at any moment. Constant apologies for less-than-perfect work may be felt to be necessary.
The sky’s the limit for the number of permutations of these early threats and their outworking in later life. There are also many other causes of anxiety which I haven’t mentioned. Psychotherapy can help by identifying and bringing into the present the original fears and gradually draining them of some of their power. The repeated realization of the big mismatch between the feared threat and the actual reality can also lessen the hold of anxiety over time.
I’ve found that small psychotherapy groups can be particularly useful in treating anxiety because emotions around threats of one kind or another are quite likely to be generated in the interactions between seven or eight people and these can be caught as they happen and then identified and worked through. Distortions of perceived threats in the outside world can also be corrected by group members. The lessons learnt in the group can then be ‘practised’ in daily life and thereby reinforced.
I’ve also found that people who struggle to access and express anger often have particular problems with anxiety. There’s a line in the First Letter of St John in the Bible that says: ‘Perfect love casts out fear’. True as that may be, I think you could also say: ‘Perfect anger casts out fear’. It’s often by claiming our own bottled-up anger and expressing it that a greater confidence comes and anxiety is dissipated. Then it is that we realize that our walled prison of anxiety actually had a wall missing all the time, a wall through which we could have escaped.
There’s a powerful and perceptive poem about this by Stevie Smith. It’s not specifically about anxiety but if fits perfectly. It’s called Anger’s Freeing Power:
‘I had a dream three walls stood up wherein a raven bird
Against the walls did beat himself and was this not absurd?
For sun and rain beat in that cell that had its fourth wall free
And daily blew the summer shower and the rain came presently
And all the pretty summer time and all the winter too
That foolish bird did beat himself till he was black and blue.
Rouse up, rouse up, my raven bird, fly by the open wall
You make a prison of a place that is not one at all.
I took my raven by the hand, Oh come, I said, my Raven,
And I will take you by the hand and you shall fly to heaven.
But oh he sobbed and oh he sighed and in a fit he lay
Until two fellow ravens came and stood outside to say:
You wretched bird, conceited lump
You well deserve to pine and thump.
See, now a wonder, mark it well
My bird rears up in angry spell.
Oh do I then? he says and careless flies
O’er flattened wall at once to heaven’s skies
And in my dream I watched him go
And I was glad, I loved him so.
Yet when I woke my eyes were wet
To think Love had not freed my pet.
Anger it was that won him hence
As only Anger taught him sense.
Often my tears fall in a shower
Because of Anger’s freeing power.’
© Brian Shand 2021
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