An anxiety disorder is a general term mental health professionals use to describe a condition of abnormal and pathological fear and feeling of anxiousness. Although there are many different types of anxiety related disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, phobic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and panic disorder, the traditional treatment approach usually involves a combination of medication and talk therapy.
What is an Anxiety Disorder?
The common theme across most anxiety-type disorders identified in the DSM-IV ™ is the expression of fears that are irrational and usually not founded on fact. The problem is both persistent and pervasive throughout many aspects of a person’s life. In severe instances, the fears and associated feelings interfere with an individual’s ability to cope with daily life. Anxiety can occur in lesser degrees than a full-blown anxiety disorder. Test anxiety is a great example of an irrational fear that people develop, which in turn negatively affects their ability to perform well on an exam. People who experience test anxiety may or may not meet the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder, but situationally, their feelings of stress can be equally as debilitating.
Anxiety is a mental and emotional state (in the head) that is expressed in a variety of terms: heart pounding, shaking, difficulty breathing, chest and abdominal pain, nausea, dizziness, restlessness, fatigue, keyed-up, irritable, difficulty sleeping and/ or concentrating, muscular tension, and extreme fear (of death, loss of control, and insanity). In most cases, the feelings are known as internal kinesthetic representations. This means the feelings of anxiety are felt (kinesthetic) internally as a response to the irrational thoughts and fears. Interestingly, the descriptions provided in the DSM-IV TM are cognitive based. The thoughts and fears may be irrational creations of the mind, but the reactions to the events are physical. This article will focus on how to treat anxiety disorders in such a way that alters the internal representations.
Types of Internal Representations
Internal representations are the ways we think about represent the world in our minds. They are formed as a result of sensory input (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling) we receive from the outside world. In the case of anxiety, internal representations are created, not necessarily from information we receive from the outside world, but as distorted representations created in the mind. For example, a person who suffers from arachnophobia (extreme fear of spiders) at the mere mention of the word spider may create a picture in their head of a huge spider that is scarier and more frightening than any real spider they might encounter. That picture is both Visually created (Vc) and internally Kinesthetic (Ki) because of the physical reaction the person feels.
Because different people have different processing approaches, effective treatment of anxiety disorders should involve the discovery of an individual’s representational strategy-how the process and store information in memory. Many people, even those without an anxiety disorder, engage in negative and self-destructive self-talk. That is, they say things to themselves like “I could never do that”, “I’m not good enough for… “, or “I’m not smart enough to… “. The negative self-talk creates what is called an Auditory Digital (Ad) internal representation that then might be expressed with a Kinesthetic (Ki) response such as muscle tension, shortness of breath, etc. When an individual’s strategy involves multiple representational systems overlapping working together, the strategies involve synesthesia-a perceptual condition of mixed sensations.
Our “As If” World
Why do people use synesthesia as a processing strategy? According to Ericksonian therapist David Higgins, we all live in an “as if” world. We constantly make guesses about what will happen next. We justify this behavior by thinking our guesses are be based on past experiences, but in reality, they are future generated hallucinations. As such, they have the potential to generate feelings of hope or fear, happiness or pain. This is an active ongoing process that can be healthy and invigorating. If the representations go awry, however, it can generate the feelings of stress and fear associated with anxiety disorders. Severe anxiety is a disorder of the “As if” process that results from cognitive distortions of the internal representations.
How to Treat Anxiety Disorders by Changing Internal Representations
Some of the most debilitating effects of anxiety disorders are the kinesthetic (feeling) responses that interfere with the ability to function. If an individual is experiencing a pounding heart, shortness of breath, and muscle tension, it will be very difficult from them to participate in any sort of cognitive task (work, school, sports, etc.) including talk therapy. The physical response will take over shadow any ability to reason. As such, one of the first steps to treatment should be to identify the individual’s strategy for forming internal representations, and then create what is known in the Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) world as a Resource Anchor or anchoring a resource state. A resource state is a mental state that represents the thoughts a feelings a person desires such as calmness, joy, satisfaction or confident. The resource state can be anchored in such as way that the individual can access it whenever anxiety becomes an issue.
How to Anchor a Resource State
- Identify a mental state you would like to experience more often (E.g., confident, content, empowered, relaxed, etc.).
- Identify a specific time when you fully experienced that state. Relive the experience. See through your own eyes, hear through your own ears, and feel the sensations in your body.
- Select an anchor by choosing a part of your body that is easy for you to touch, but not a part that is usually touch during daily activities. Examples of possible anchor locations include an earlobe, knuckle, skin between two fingers, etc.
- Re-access the resource experience you identified in step 2. As you feel that the state is about to reach its maximum intensity (just before the peak experience), touch or squeeze the part of your body you selected as your anchor site. Adjust the pressure of your touch to match the degree of intensity of your feeling of the resource state.
- Repeat step 4 as often as necessary, each time enhancing your experience of the state. NOTE: If done correctly, you should need to anchor the feeling only once to be effective.
- Test your anchor by clearing your mind and simply touching your self-anchor experience. Touching you anchor site should bring back the desired feeling or emotional state. If it doesn’t, repeat the anchoring process until it does work.
Once you have easy access to your resource state, it should be simple to access the relaxed, confident, or other desired state you anchored. There are no limits to the number of anchors you can create. Just be careful to select different anchor sites unless you are stacking anchors to make one anchor especially intense.
It is also possible to create internal anchors by imaging a color vividly in your mind’s eye. You can then associate the imagined color with a desired feeling or state.
Other Tools for Reducing Treating Anxiety Disorders
Reframing is an NLP that involves using language patterns to “reframe” the perceptual distortions typical of anxiety disorders. Nothing that exists in this world has meaning on its own. People assign meaning according to their beliefs, values, likes and dislikes, and other preoccupations. The meaning of an experience, then, is dependent on the context of the experience. Reframing is a strategy that works to change the way someone perceives an event and thereby changes the meaning. When the meaning changes, the response and behavior also changes.
Alter the Submodalities
In NLP, submodalities are the specific characteristics of the Internal Representation. For instance, we’ve already mentioned Visual and one form of internal representation. Visual images have distinctive characteristics like black and white vs. color, near or far, do you see yourself in the picture or are you looking through your own eyes, size of the picture, and bright or dull. Sometimes changing the submodalities of an experience can reduce the intensity of the experience.
It was stated earlier that anxiety disorders are based on irrational thoughts and feelings. Anxiety and panic responses are incongruent with the rest of a person’s life. It’s as if the part of the person that is control at the time of the panic or anxiety attack has its own intentions, beliefs and behavior that are different from the intentions, beliefs and behavior of the same person when they are calm. There are numerous NLP techniques that are useful for integrating the parts to create congruency in the person’s thoughts and feelings and eliminating the irrational thoughts and feelings that create the anxiety. Examples of these techniques include, but are not limited to: Parts Integration, Timeline Therapy, Mental Emotional Release and Core Transformation TM.
The purpose of this article was not to argue with techniques for treating anxiety disorders involving medication and traditional counseling approaches. Rather, it was to describe approaches that deal directly with the source of the problem that is common to all anxiety-related disorders. Working with internal representations and their submodalities offers new options for individuals who suffer from anxiety disorders as well as for people who work to treat anxiety disorders in the everyday practice. The combinations of techniques that are a part of the practice of NLP are relatively easy to use and have a lower risk factor than some of the more traditional approaches to treatment.