The Role of Anxiety in Living an Authentic Life

By Concentric Counselor Christian Younginer, LPC, NCC

To be brief, anxiety can suck. The persistent worry of imagined scenarios can plague the mind and exhaust the body. It can manifest as brief periods of pronounced worry, a baseline worry for all things, and even panic attacks. But I would like to offer a perspective that may be overlooked in coping with anxiety. That is, can my anxiety teach me something?

Specifically, can my anxiety teach me how to live an authentic, meaningful life? This question shapes Existential Therapy. At its broadest, existential therapy is the endeavor of understanding one’s existence in a therapeutic setting. This is done via an honest exploration of one’s freedom, choice, responsibility, meaning, and inevitable death. Existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom conceptualizes much of anxiety as death-anxiety (Existential Psychotherapy, p.189). That is, persistent anxiety can be explained as an underlying worry about a life without meaning in the face of approaching death. Death is what allows life to have meaning. If there were no end, then for what should we live? The finiteness of life can motivate, intimidate, and terrify. However, it is this anxiety that can be the canary in the mine of our life.

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As we work, study, sleep, parent, eat, play, drive, and journey through life, meaning and purpose can slip through the cracks. Anxiety can creep in, seeming to have no definable impetus. Often enough the death of a loved one, or a diagnostic medical scare can bring perspective -- wherein we confront our death. But one does not need to wait for such a moment to ask these questions, such as “Why am I here?”, “What does it mean to exist?”, and “What is my purpose?”.

Anxiety can be that canary that alerts us of an inauthentic life. It warns of the finiteness of life, and the importance of living a life with meaning. This often manifests as a vague sensation of “running out of time”. Without meaning, one can find life pointless or trite. The finiteness of life no longer motivates, it terrifies. But if we listen to what our anxiety is telling us, perhaps we can redirect our lives towards meaning.

How does one do this?

An example from philosophy may be of use. In Frederick Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, Nietzsche offers the reader an aphorism he titles ‘The Heaviest Burden’. He proceeds to ask the reader: if a demon were to order that you must live this life in eternal recurrence, every moment, detail, pain, and triumph- would you thank him or curse him? (The Gay Science, Aphorism #341). So, do I live my life in such a way that were I to re-live this life on repeat, I would praise the demon with gratitude for the opportunity? Or would this prospect bring about the abysmal dread of re-living a meaningless life? It is this precise idea where anxiety comes into play. Am I experiencing the anxiety and dread of a life not worth re-living?

It is this question that can help steer us towards meaning. Do I live in such a way that were I to re-live this life on repeat, would I be in joyful contentment or in abysmal dread? This is a tough question with which to be confronted. However, we can use this question as a beginning: the moment one begins to ask “does my life have meaning?”. Rather than be frozen by the possible dread this question instills, one can frame this as the moment in which a new life begins. As always, Confucius said it best, “ We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.”

Determining WHAT is meaningful is a personal journey that can take time to uncover. But knowing thyself was important to Plato for a reason. It is this existential journey of a human confronted with death, through anxiety, uncovering that which gives their life meaning.

To conclude, yes, anxiety does suck. But as we work to cope with it, let us ask -- What is this anxiety trying to teach me?  Anxiety very well may lead us away from the existential dread of an unexamined life, and instead towards finding a meaningful life worthy of repeating.

Sexual Trauma, Triggers, & The 24-Hour News Cycle

By Concentric Counselor Katie Ho, LPC, NCC

You can hardly escape today’s current social and political climate - it’s on the news, in your social media, overheard at lunch, and even for therapists, themes in session. For those who have experienced trauma in their lifetime, past or ongoing, navigating topics like sexual assault can be overwhelming, scary, complicated and sometimes even powerful. How we take care of ourselves and the people around us who may be struggling with the complexity of their emotions has to be part of the larger conversation. It’s clear that avoiding or minimizing discussions on sexual violence and quieting the stories of survivors is not the path to atonement and reconciliation. But as we create space and lift up the voices of those who have suffered, we must also take inventory of what comes up in us and tend to those parts with kindness, care and nurturing.

The #MeToo movement, local and national advocacy groups and social justice organizations have been and continue to create a platform for those who have been victim to sexual harassment and assault. While the stories and accounts of these traumas seem to be daunting all of the sudden for those who have been unaware, statistics and experts have known for some time of these experiences. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) estimates that 1 in 5 women will be raped in the United States in their lifetime, and that 1 in 3 women will experience some form of sexual violence. The majority of these acts are committed by acquaintances, partners or people who are known by the victim, and according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the majority of these events occur at or near the victim’s home. These of course are statistics, data and research gathered through reports from multidisciplinary agencies. There is undeniable value in knowing these numbers. And just as much, there is value in hearing the experiences and seeing the faces of survivors who have chosen to come forward.

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As allegations and reports of sexual assault make the news, we are bombarded with information, opinions, commentary and even jokes on the matter. Survivors are subject to their own re-traumatization, which has an impact on psychological and physical health, triggered by both the details of these publicized allegations of assaults and non-believers who dismiss them.

In knowing that a trigger is a psychological stimulus that can be evoked through anything from sights, smells or sounds, it’s no wonder that the 24-hour news cycle is affecting so many people. Survivors are not alone in their strong reactions to the constant replaying and subsequent criticism, shaming or dismissing of survivor stories. Those who feel a connection or calling to the cause, whether it be through their empathic attunement or knowing a survivor, may also experience the distress and burnout that comes with the current climate.

So how do we take care? How do we balance the righteous anger and complexity of our other emotions, promote advocacy and change, all while healing and taking gentle care of ourselves? In doing this, one of the most important things to know is nothing can replace the support of others. So find someone, or a group of someones, who can help to support, validate and foster a safe environment for processing.

Find a tribe, or maybe even create one. Pay attention to your body, as our physical being can often tell us when stress is increasing and it’s time for tending and healing. Maybe that means physical exercise, movement, touch or a practice of progressive muscle relaxation (a quick YouTube search is all you need!). Set boundaries. Limit your intake of news and dialogue on the topic by knowing how much mental and emotional labor you’re able to give without overextending yourself. And if you find yourself overwhelmed, triggered or lost, use mindful grounding techniques to bring yourself back into your here and now. Feel your feet on the floor, describe and notice something around you, use your five senses to bring a consciousness into your physical environment and current moment in time and add in a quick reminder - “I am safe. I am in control. I am okay.”

A Thoughtfully Designed & Researched Blueprint of Your Relationship & Marriage

By Concentric Counselors Katie Ho, LPC, NCC & Jennifer Larson, LCPC, NCC

A large part of the human experience, including the joys, losses and challenges, gravitate around relationships. In social and cultural regards, finding a partner and committing to a person can be a marker of happiness, success or accomplishment. But like with any experience, obstacles lay ahead. All couples find themselves navigating conflict, life transitions or faced with heavy decisions, and the related stress that comes with these expected issues.

There are some couples, however, which continue to exist in this perpetual conflict - one that doesn’t appear to have any resolution and creates continual gridlock. Or perhaps there has been a significant breach of trust, or betrayal. Maybe communication is poor, and creates dysfunction during arguments or otherwise, or possibly there has been a traumatic event which has challenged the feelings of safety within the relationship. All of these reasons, and those that might even fall in-between, can be indicators that a couple may benefit from entering couples therapy.

Seeking couples therapy takes courage, as much as it takes hope - hope that the relationship can be repaired or healed, or maybe hope that both individuals can find strength in different directions. Using over 40 years of research, The Gottman Method - developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman - has helped couples and clinicians create a blueprint of understanding the dysfunction within relationships and the need for building friendship, shared meaning and intimacy. This method was created to serve a deep need in helping find effective intervention for couples looking for repair, healing and happiness. It serves as a theory in which people are able to know both themselves and their partner on a more meaningful level, fostering intimacy, positive affect and skillful conflict management.

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When a couple is seeking therapy, there can sometimes be an already significant level of distress present. In their research, the Gottmans found that on average it can take up to 6 years before a couple will seek therapy! This can mean there is a long history of experiences, life phases or challenges that have a need to be explored and understood. Partners may feel overwhelmed, flooded or unsure of where to even begin the healing journey. This highlights the need for a trained couples therapist, equipped with scientific evidence-based practices and the skills to empathize equally with both individuals to help navigate that process.

In working to repair and strengthen a relationship, much like with building a house, there has to be certain core foundational components. The Sound Relationship House from the Gottman Method explains that at its roots, marriage and relationships need to be built on friendship. The essential components of friendship are described as ‘Building Love Maps’, ‘Sharing Fondness and Admiration’ and ‘Turning Towards’. In the first mentioned, to build a Love Map means to truly understand know your partner’s internal world.

People’s internal world changes over time; who are the current people they are involved with, what are their immediate and long-term hopes and dreams, ambitions, or experiences from childhood that may be playing into their current situations. Asking open-ended questions, remembering the answers and actively listening promotes genuine connectedness and friendship. Sharing fondness and admiration, and turning towards your partner, are other components to strengthening and building the friendship of a marriage or relationship. They focus on scanning the environment for what one’s partner is doing right and engaging in appreciation, affection and respect. Additionally, the last level of foundation in ‘turning towards’ describes opportunities for couples to accept and receive bids from the other partner for emotional connection.

The higher levels of The Sound Relationship House include ‘The Positive Perspective’, ‘Manage Conflict’, ‘Make Life Dreams Come True’ and ‘Create Shared Meaning’. These levels of building a healthy relationship are built upon those above-mentioned ideas of friendship. They encompass skills necessary to navigate conflict and life changes, promoting positive affect and a deeper understanding of their partner’s underlying values and dreams and building a life of meaning together. Couples therapy addresses both the necessity for positive connection and friendship, while also acknowledging the dysfunction which makes that task more challenging.

Construction of homes need to be buttressed and supported by its internal supports otherwise houses would collapse.  The same is true of intimate relationships. Every relationship or marriage needs the supports and pillars of 'Trust' and 'Commitment' for stability, safety, and security.  If the 'Trust' or 'Commitment' reinforcements on The Sound Relationship House have been significantly damaged, the relationship can feel shattered and even decimated requiring much repairing and rebuilding.  Sometimes a relationship can be so damaged so that we tell couples relationship #1 has been damaged as if a hurricane or storm came barreling through wiping out your home.  The devastation and trauma is real, but with hope, commitment, and efforts, we can help you re-build relationship #2 as in the case when people experience great natural disaster in their communities requiring building home #2.  Some feel as though it requires blood, sweat and tears, but building relationship #2 can be done collaboratively with the support and care of a highly, skilled and trained couples therapist.   

Having the skills to identify and change maladaptive communication styles and behaviors that plague relationships is of equal value. In our work at Concentric Counseling & Consulting and using the Gottman Method, we incorporate the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - which is a metaphor in describing what can be a predictor for the end of a relationship. These include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. In working with couples to address these maladaptive behaviors, the couples therapist will explain the antidotes, or remedies to address these bad habits in the work towards building healthier ones.

The goal for any couple is to promote understanding, connection, love, growth, and healing. That can look differently for every couple, as every couple experiences their own unique set of challenges and circumstances. The benefit of seeking a therapist trained in a data-driven theory and method such as the Gottman Method is that interventions and treatment plans are tailored to that couples’ needs through the use of thorough assessments and a framework that has been built based on research. The process to having a better, more enjoyable and healthy relationship takes commitment and hard work, but the reward exists within both the outcome and the journey.

For more information on The Gottman Method and services offered by Gottman-trained therapists at Concentric Counseling & Consulting, visit https://www.gottman.com/ and www.concentricchicago.com/couples-marriage-counseling.