A client came to me because they were experiencing severe anxiety when they were driving. Driving is essential for their business. Sometimes things would get so bad that they had to pull off the road and just wait for it to pass.
What this client and I did together was help them to build memories of successful car journeys, even car journeys where they did feel anxious but got past it. Initially, these examples were in imagination and in the safety of my practice room, but soon we transferred these practices to the real world.
Recently, this client said to me that they were “97% free of anxiety when driving, and when the 3% occurred … could keep going knowing that I will get past it.”
Because we cannot banish anxiety forever from our brains, this seems to me like a successful solution as this client now is back in control.
If you’d like to know more about what went on in this session and why it worked, you can read about it on my blog here.
Blog post, all the above plus:
First of all, anxiety is a natural survival process within our brain, so eliminating it forever is neither possible nor desirable.
Secondly, if this client’s anxiety had surfaced around specific journeys, times of day or anything identifiable like that, then it’s highly likely there would be some difficult memories that were being reactivated. None of this showed up. If such memories had existed, I would have used one of the memory re-consolidation techniques to remove the emotional punch from this memory so it would no longer be pushing them around. My personal choice is a tool called Havening.
The strategy that I used can superficially look like exposure therapy. This therapy is where the client is repeatedly exposed to increasing levels of a particular perceived threat. What then happens in the brain is that new circuits are built; over time the person’s unconscious mind routinely follows these fresh pathways and the problem does not occur. The drawback with this approach is simple; the existing difficult pathways are still there and if things get stressful they get reactivated, overwriting the new conditioning so that the client is back where they started.
Another aspect for this client, which is typical for many people with high anxiety levels, is that I was teaching them to stay externally-focused, rather than disappearing into their inner world during anxiety. Of course, external focus when driving also confers a higher chance of survival!
The approach taken in the example with this client was intended to put them back in control by making sure they were aware of what was happening whilst it was happening (rather than simply have me ‘fix it’ without them noticing). This gave them the space where they could then choose how to respond. Some would call this mindfulness.
This client came to me with a whole series of issues around anxiety so I deliberately took my time to build this single successful strategy in their brain. As we looked at other areas of anxiety in their life, they made their own connection to the fact that they had already overcome one particular anxiety. This increased their optimism which meant that they were prepared to keep going longer in order to get a workable resolution to their issues. Additionally, it engaged the brain’s natural ability to generalise from one or two examples into the whole of our lives.
Furthermore, the mindfulness helped them to be aware and conscious that they had made a change, and consciously work to hold on to it, helping them to feel significantly more in control of their entire life.