University of Auckland: Listening to our anxiety

Anxiety is a natural reaction to events in our lives and a signal we need to slow down and listen to ourselves, an experienced counsellor says.

Dr Brian Rodgers, senior lecturer in Counselling, Human Services and Social Work, says his advice on anxiety draws on practical counselling experience. “It is a natural bodily response to stressful situations, uncertainty, change and so forth. It’s often things that are outside our control. From a counselling perspective, anxiety is trying to communicate something that needs attending to.”

Most of us know when we are anxious through heightened alertness, feeling on edge, an internal pressure, and at the same time hypersensitivity, Rodgers says. It can involve symptoms such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating.

There is no single cause for anxiety, which may be related to circumstances, such as the global pandemic, work performance, social anxiety, or connection to past trauma or intergenerational trauma.

Anxiety may also be physiological, such as a chemical imbalance that needs to be medicated. A sense of “overwhelm” can result from too much anxiety. “From a counselling perspective, ‘overwhelm’ could be the organism trying to take care of itself by shutting down.”

“The more we can listen to ourselves, the more we can find the resources within ourselves to address what’s going on.”
Brian Rodgers
University of Auckland
The current global pandemic and associated lockdown have given Brian a recent experience of feeling overwhelmed while working from home.

While he has tried to manage that by reducing his expectations of what he should be able to cope with and do, that brings its own stressors. “That’s challenging because we have social norms about being able to cope that add to that sense of anxiousness about performing.”

He says that what can help is slowing down and listening to our anxiety instead of dismissing or ignoring it. “The more we can listen to ourselves, the more we can find the resources within ourselves to address what’s going on. That’s where counselling can be helpful by having someone working with us to help us hear ourselves.

“We can get so locked into our way of seeing things that we can’t see our way out of a situation.”

Brian is aware he is making a plug for counselling; however, he believes, in our society, we need to be talking more openly about our anxieties, including in the workplace.

Team leaders could set an example by talking about their own challenges and checking in with team members. Our modern lives are full of anxiety-provoking circumstances, yet there is this societal pressure to “get on with it” and “cope”, he says.

“In a way, the high level of anxiety in modern society is telling us that we need to be doing things differently. This is not a simple task and really requires systemic changes. “To me, this is the opportunity that anxiety presents us with – it is letting us know that something needs to change. The challenge then is to do something about it!”

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