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A Psychologist's Thoughts on Clinical Practice, Behavior, and Life

Of Adult Anxieties and Lingering Childhood Fears

Consideration of anxiety has a long illustrious history. Pascal, the French seventeenth century child prodigy, mathematician, and physicist, suffered from anxiety and wrote "all of the misfortunes of men derive from one single thing which is their their inability to sit still in a room." Anxiety is today's most frequent mental health diagnosis, having as a common complaint the inability to sit still.
Yet were humans unable to experience anxiety its species could not have endured since it is a critical survival mechanism: a reptilian instinct that mortal danger approaches and warning the need to prepare. Now, these dangers are rarely lethal, referring instead to job or relationship difficulty. While these anxieties are readily interpreted, the inexplicable frighten most since they erupt from the bedrock of personality created during early life: the struggle for autonomy and conflicts about self-assertion and intimacy, fragments of which persist to do battle.
Once, during my successful treatment of a young child, her mother shared her own troubled childhood. I remarked that her mother "had issues." She instantly retorted, "My mother was a perfect mother," stormed from my office and removed her daughter from my treatment.
A woman in her eighties, the recipient of numerous national awards, said after receiving her latest, "I wish my mother could have seen this."

Childhood emotions linger throughout life, to be expressed in artistic creations, self-defeating behaviors, and fears.

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Psychosomatic Disorders and Anxiety

The human organism was once an undifferentiated mass from which subsystems developed: the enzymatic (hormone) system; the nervous system; the psychological system; and the organ system. Their boundaries are imprecise with activity in one being continuously communicated to others. A change in one that is caused by stress causes changes in others with their normal smooth integration being affected. Stress initially arouses helpful body defenses but too great stress causes a breakdown between system boundaries, a de-differentiation in which energy is discharged through violent fighting activity or running movements.
Mild anxiety is experienced as a signal of danger and can result in more efficient action or thought. But if the anxiety is too intense, with psychological means or behavior being unable to reduce it, primitive psychosomatic defenses attempt to replace the unsuccessful psychological maneuvers, stirring up harmful organ or system effects that can persist after the anxiety disappears.

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The Inescapable Pain and Benefits of Anxiety and Depression

While the pain of anxiety and depression cannot be denied, neither can it be avoided since they are part of the human condition, enabling us to become more fully human, more of who we can be.


Anxiety signals impending danger, actual or not, thus attempting to protect one from harm. An unrealistic danger indicates that an unconscious conflict, which may involve anything, is causing distress. Perhaps the desire for intimacy conflicting with its fear because of early life experiences, these being the bedrock of the adult personality.

 

Depression indicates a "depressing" of feelings for one of three reasons: being "stuck" because of an inability to decide what to do; sensing that one has deep problems and giving up; or having unsuccessfully attempted to emotionally reach a parent during early childhood, this creating feelings of inadequacy that can persist into adulthood and affect functioning.


Making significant life changes require confronting the unconscious conflicts which can afflict us all for these too are part of being human.

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Swamped by the Worried Well in the Emergency Room

Emergency Room workers are being swamped by medically healthy people who are frantically seeking testing for coronavirus. Though the present national period time is exceptional, their behavior is no different from anytime when anxiety escalates and panic overwhelms.


Anxiety is the normal, healthy experience when the mind senses danger. It can produce symptoms that mimic virtually any medical disorder: pain in the head or back; nausea or dry mouth; scarily heightened blood pressure; skin eruption; lack of appetite. All instantly vanishing when the fear that aroused them disappears. During normal times, forty to sixty percent of the people arriving at an Emergency Room who fear that they're having a heart attack are really suffering a Panic Disorder. This is the condition when the normal symptoms of anxiety are misinterpreted as a deadly medical event.


More public education about the human mind is sorely needed.

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How the Present Coronavirus Crisis Differs From Past National Crises

The present extreme public anxiety caused by the coronavirus may reflect its difference from past national crises. Those, like in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terror attack and President Kennedy's assassination, were better capable of being grasped, being more "conventional" and having a presumed brief time frame to experience whereas the present crisis may be experienced more like that of the seemingly endless and inexplicable Great Depression.

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Overcoming an Agitated Depression

There are few more painful experiences than an agitated depression: the combination of pervading anxiety and deep depression. Which can result following such common trauma as divorce or unemployment. Or even apparently nothing since, as I never tire of saying, the unconscious is very powerful and one must respect its power.


Because feelings reflect both mind and body, they cannot be separated. Thus does remaining in bed make depression worse and incoherent flight increase panic. So when altering the body through constructive activity, as by involving oneself in a work or household chore, the agitated depression lifts and, sometime later, its unconscious cause (if one exists) may surface.

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The Anxiety of Physical Illness

Physical illness involves feeling different, disconnected from the usual experience of possessing control over oneself, having the ability to reason, and considering oneself omnipotent in the world. While unrealistic, feeling all-powerful is needed for it enables one to function in the world, to engage in needed routines without anxiety. Yet this critical sense can be disrupted by physical change, even one so insignificant as suffering a conventional cold or stomach upset for these deny the person the feeling of intactness and affect reasoning.

 

Suffering a severe illness can be far worse as thinking processes change and helplessness ensue, the latter being the scariest of all feelings: when the ill person becomes passive, and his body no longer respects his commands.

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Anxiety Disorders, and the Retreat from Relating to Unconscious Motivation

This past weekend’s edition (April 29-30, 2017) of the Wall Street Journal contained the review of a book describing the author's painful experience with anxiety (“On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety” by Andrea Petersen). Her long-term symptoms included the usual: multiple fears, and non-medically caused, odd bodily sensations.
After years on various medications and ( Read More 
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The Difference Between Fear and Anxiety

Like conjoined twins, it can be hard to emotionally separate fear from anxiety though they differ. Fear is the suspicion of danger, whether actual or merely imagined. Anxiety is the resultant physical experience with symptoms that can mimic virtually any medical disorder: increased heart rate, dry mouth, loss of appetite, and/or pain in  Read More 
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