Anxiety: when the body speaks to the mind

Suffering is like a mountain we live beside. It rains, and rocks fall. But we have choices, and we can build refuge. Photo by Nicolas Cool on Unsplash

I am a counsellor, and often find myself working with clients on their anxiety.  Persistent anxiety can be a profoundly uncomfortable feeling, as painful as a bodily injury or disease. To add to the difficulty, sometimes an anxious state attacks a person in a very physical way, even when that person feels as though they should be perfectly in control of their thoughts.

Perhaps we wake up at night, and the body is already in a ‘wired’ state, as though electricity is running through our veins.  On the one hand, we can’t understand why this should be.  On the other hand, we know that life has thrown at us several impossible situations, and that the persistent exposure to stress has finally taken its toll.  We wonder what we can do about it.

When working with clients of this type, I often find myself puzzled.  The client desperately wants to be rid of their anxiety; and yet they speak of their anxiety as a predictable response to all the situations they have found themselves in.  I think to myself: “Well, what role do I play, then?  The client has wrapped it up nicely.  Their body is plagued by anxiety, because life has been difficult.  There is nothing more to say.”

But, being a positive counsellor, I’m not really content with stopping there.  If I do, then I am simply agreeing with the client that they are stuck, that life is as it is, that there is nothing more it is possible to do.

Sometimes I use the analogy of a mountain.  “Imagine that our life is a big mountain beside us,” I say.  “It rains from that mountain, and big boulders fall down on our heads from avalanches.  We can point to the mountain and say ‘look, that mountain is life.  It is why I suffer.’  And we would be right.  The mountain is there, and we suffer.

“But, equally, are we really not going to seek refuge from the rains and the falling rocks?  Can we really not create shelter?  Can we really not walk away from the mountain sometimes, and enjoy some sun, and a break from things falling on our heads?”

There are two opposite reactions clients can have.  Some clients will nod, but return to pointing to the mountain, and saying “look, the mountain is raining again, and I am suffering.”  I listen to those clients, because listening is important too.

Other clients will respond differently.  They will dare to begin to explore techniques for living in the shadow of the mountain.  They will begin to build a house with a roof – in other words, to develop techniques to protect themselves from storms and disasters.  They will also dare to walk away from the mountain at times, and give themselves a holiday from their troubles.

Guilt is a big one for all clients.  We feel loyal to those close to us.  We think, “If I make space for self-care, then I will be failing to care for my nearest and dearest.”  But I remind my clients: “But isn’t that why you’re here?  Because you have cared, and cared, until you have no energy left, and your nerves are on edge?  It’s not wrong to step away from the mountain sometimes.  You can be a better refuge for others, if you first learn to give refuge to yourself.”