Anxiety exists on a continuum: it is a normal, universal part of human life that we all experience to one degree or another. Anxiety has its innate, organic purpose in that it can serve to motivate us, and to keep us safe and alert. However, at the same time, it is also equally true that anxiety can be more extreme and intrusive enough that it has clear negative impacts on our functioning. Anxiety is highly treatable, and there are many ways that we can approach it from an integrative framework.
There are various standard symptoms of what we may call “generalized” anxiety. In addition to generalized anxiety, anxiety symptoms can manifest in specialized forms. These are often termed “anxiety disorders”. From an integrative framework of treatment, it is not important, effective, or even accurate to label clients as having “disorders”. To call them "disorders" is superimposing a concept on top of the actuality of symptoms or behaviors. The symptoms and behaviors objectively exist, but the label has no inherent existence. Highlighting this distinction has significant treatment implications, which I believe lead to more effective treatment.
I have several ways that I work with generalized anxiety, as well as the more specialized forms of anxiety. It is important to remember that you are not your anxiety, but that there is a part of you that has anxiety symptoms. This means that we have to tend to the part of you that experiences anxiety, but also acknowledge that there are other parts of you that do not have anxiety.
Therefore, when it comes to these specialized forms of anxiety, I work with:
1. "socially-anxious" parts of us;
2. "obsessive-compulsive" parts of us;
3. "anorexic and bulimic" parts of us
4. parts of us that carry "trauma"
Healing from addiction requires, first, that we understand - and not reject - the parts of us that have learned how to cope with difficult feelings using the best strategy available to them. And second, from a holistic perspective, we must understand that the desire for many of the qualities that we seek in substances and addictive behaviors represent legitimate human needs. For example, human beings need bliss for enjoyment and regulation. We need to find out how to experience bliss, and other kinds of goodness, which i address in the last paragraph.
In regards to our addictive “parts”, these are the parts of us that seem to have a life and will of their own, regardless of what other parts of us know is good for us. Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) calls these parts of us “firefighters”. The function of firefighters is to quickly “put out” the flames of our difficult emotions. After the alarm in our system is sounded, they mobilize and take action fast, saturating or dousing us with whatever works. These parts of us are trying to soothe or regulate our nervous system. At their heart, and even though it doesn’t appear this way, their role is a protective one. We need to see how this is a compassionate attempt on their part, even though it is misguided. Ultimately, we need to learn what our addiction is covering over, and connect to a new part of us that has the inner resources and leadership we need to transform our addiction into wisdom.
As I mentioned, a full human life means that we can experience enjoyments and goodness of all kinds. We need pleasure for self-regulation. We need a sense of peace, deep relaxation, nourishment, love, fulfillment, joy, and all of these good things. The issue is not that we have these normal needs, but that our society does not have proper knowledge of how to access these experiences in healthy ways. The primary means for accessing these states is meditation, and methods that connect us to our inner being, which is inherently blissful. It is possible to turn our negative addiction into a positive addiction.
Trauma and Spirituality
There's a complex relationship, and a seeming paradox, between trauma and spirituality. In one direction, the experience of developmental or isolated trauma can sometimes push us into initiating spiritual or psychological growth, giving us no choice but to take our next steps on our evolutionary path. In the other direction, it works the other way around: often it will happen that engaging deep psychological or spiritual work will highlight and uproot unresolved trauma that might or might not know about. The spiritual journey, and the experience and resolution of trauma, are intimately woven together. With the greater understanding of trauma that we have today, we can respond with more intelligence, attunement, and precision to this situation than ever before.
Trauma is an experience of loss of control and the solid ground beneath us, and to heal we must renegotiate and regain this security. Alternatively, on the spiritual path, we are asked to gradually give up our control, and we are continuously losing our ground. So what happens when we haven't regained a sense of control from previous trauma, but are being asked to surrender control that we never really felt we had in the first place?
Though paradoxical, the situation is very workable. If possible, it's most optimal to work with our trauma before going too deeply into spiritual territory. In other cases, there can be clarity about taking a break from intensive spiritual work and focusing only on specialized trauma work.Transpersonal psychotherapy provides an integrated view and practice that can help us navigate this extremely common situation.
Conflicts with Spiritual Teachers, Paths, Organizations, and Cults
Sometimes we have conflicts and doubts that arise in relationship to significant people, or communities that we are involved in, that are supposed to have our best interests in mind. It can be difficult, scary, or confusing when we lose trust in our support system.
Regardless of how enlightened or progressive a spiritual teacher or community claims to be, we are human beings with imperfections, flaws, and unhealed wounds. Having access to deep spiritual states of consciousness doesn't mean that we are healthy people, have healthy relationships, and lead a wholesome life.
If we begin to challenge an authority or community, we might find ourselves in a position of isolation regarding a situation in which we experience a lack of transparency. The group dynamics created by certain teachers and communities often do not optimally support full autonomy and individuation, but rather promote conformity, groupthink, and dependency. These kinds of psychological dynamics can be obvious or very subtle. Sometimes an unhealthy situation is clear to us, such as when there is a gross violation of trust. Other times, we may not totally feel clear about what is happening, but simply have the feeling that something is 'off'.
If we are having any of these feelings, we should take them seriously. The degree of critical thinking encouraged by a community will indicate it's level of psychological health. It can be very helpful to have an outside source of support that listens and helps us make sense of the situation, and assists us in discovering and trusting our own perception.
Highly sensitive people possess a multitude of gifts, but this gift also usually presents many challenges, as highly sensitive people tend to feel everything and everyone intensely and without much of a filter. It can feel like walking through the world with exposed skin, while everybody else seems to be equipped with a thick coat of armor. It's difficult to fully inhabit our sensitivity in a world that can be coarse and insensitive.
If you're a highly sensitive person, it's necessary to take time explore how being an HSP impacts your life, and what might help you protect yourself from physical, energetic, emotional, psychic, relational, and spiritual overwhelm. There are many important skills, techniques, lessons, insights, and new kind of actions that we can take that can provide and relief. Sometimes we can really enhance our lives just by making a few minor changes, resulting in a lighter and cleaner experience of our own energy. Both psychotherapy and energy work can help lead us in this direction.