Could your anxiety be unprocessed fear?

Today is the second day of Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2018. Recover Clinic CEO, Emmy Brunner, discusses the relationship between anxiety and fear in recovery from an eating disorder…

In my entire history as a clinician, I’m not certain that I’ve ever worked with a client who didn’t say that they were suffering from some level of anxiety. For many, that anxiety can be all encompassing. For others, it’s a consistent low-level presence that leaves a sufferer feeling permanently fearful and searching for ways to simply feel better.

“Now what many professionals don’t tell you is that anxiety just exists!”

When people start to feel anxious, they immediately try to identify the ‘cause’ of the anxiety; they will consider all the things that they’re potentially worried about, and set to work on trying to eliminate or resolve the problem. When you have an eating disorder, the ‘cause’ usually presents itself as a fear of weight gain, a dissatisfaction with your body, or worries about food in a more general sense.

Now what many professionals don’t tell you is that anxiety just exists! It’s not necessarily in response to an external event. What this means is that as soon as you have resolved or eliminated one issue, your anxiety will find another thing to use as an outlet.

Have you ever noticed that? As soon as you feel better about one thing, your anxiety just ‘hooks’ onto something else? When you have an eating disorder, this persistent anxiety will often use food and weight as a ‘justification’ for its presence i.e. “I’m really anxious because I ate that cake and now I need to be sick in order to feel better”; or “I’m really anxious because I look really fat and I don’t want to go to that party so if I stay at home I’ll feel better.”

When you consider what your anxiety really feels like, I imagine you will come up with a combination of the following:

  • A sense of impending doom
  • Restricted air flow
  • Tightness in the chest/throat
  • A feeling that you need to respond to something, even if you’re not sure what that may be
  • Palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Nausea and gastrointestinal problems

If I asked you think of what fear feels like, I wonder if that list might not look too different? When we start thinking of what you describe as ‘anxiety’ as ‘fear’ instead, we can begin to start treating your symptoms very differently.

“…but actually what we are feeling is very, very fearful.”

Many people who I’ve worked with have suffered from trauma, and at the root of that trauma, somewhere deep inside us, is a very scared and fearful child. That child feels unsafe, unseen and unheard. They feel fearful. Our early childhood perceptions of the world become absorbed into our minds and they dictate how we go on to see the world as adults. When we become adults, we walk around thinking that we are anxious, and that anxiety is related to many of the everyday things, but actually what we are feeling is very, very fearful.

Research has shown that a single catastrophic experience occurring when someone feels helpless is sufficient enough to change brain chemistry. I myself have known how exhausting it feels to be in a hyper-vigilant place: for your adrenals to be constantly firing because you’re in a fight or flight state. When we start to address our feelings of anxiety as feelings of fear, and offer ourselves comfort and nurturing, the feelings of fear begin to alleviate. They alleviate because finally that child within us is feeling seen and heard and taken care of.

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