I have been thinking about a young person his 20's who was, for at least three months, unable to leave his home, therefore work or pay bills or feel productive. He had become agoraphobic, or in other words, due to anxiety and panic attacks, had become so fearful of having another panic attack that he shut himself down, seeking refuge and the protection of his home.
When I first saw him, he seemed paralyzed by his fear of fear. This is not something new to me, as I have seen it many times before and certainly understand how destructive, how debilitating anxiety and fear can be.
Once we established a plan to both deal with his anxiety symptoms as well as the SOURCE of his anxiety, he began making significant improvement. You might ask, what would be a SOURCE. In this case, as in many, it was his lack of skills in dealing with people. He had considerable technical knowledge, but he sadly had few coping skills and strategies in dealing with people, and people can be a huge source of conflict in our lives.
Once we got started, he would report being out of his home up to three hours at a time, feeling good about himself as he made progress in facing his fears. He was driving his car to nearby stores, the gas station and other previously common places within a few miles radius. He was excited ! He realized that this is what he had to do, face his anxiety. There was no option as he would lose everything if he did not overcome his anxiety symptoms and get back to work. He got angry with himself and pushed forward, and he was seeing signs he truly could overcome. The plan was that once he made some significant headway with facing his symptoms, we would focus on his learning to deal with people and the games people play.
Then, he experienced what I call a "setback". All of a sudden he was giving into his fears again.I expect setbacks with clients as many tend to expect something bad to happen when things seem to be going well. As if to give in to "Murphy's Law", or other superstitious thoughts, he was sliding into his avoidant behavior and losing ground. As I mentioned, I expect a setback or two, but I use them as opportunities to teach each client that to truly feel in control, one needs to hit a wall and prove they can get up, shake off the dust of what he or she sees as failure, and realize that it is not failure, but just how our mind plays games with our confidence and self-esteem. To overcome panic attacks, one must KNOW he or she can and must be willing to prove that to himself.
At the same time, just as much as I know we need to deal with the source of the anxiety that caused the initial panic symptoms, I also realize that the thoughts that bring about setbacks must be understood and challenged. In this case, as much as he was making progress, in the back of his mind there was always that subconscious thought of escaping. Once the idea popped into his mind where he actually saw an option, considering seeking Social Security Disability, the strength he had been gradually rediscovering gave way to options of being able to run from the difficult issues and conflicts in his life.
The steps he had taken and the growth he had made over a matter of weeks atrophied. He had gone nowhere and done nothing for only a week, but the effects were unmistakable. His fear had gripped him tighter.
We talked, and I was very firm with him. I would NOT agree to sign off on a disability. There are people that truly suffer from disabilities, but he was not one of them. He suffered from a lack of confidence and faith in himself. He did not trust himself !
It seems in many ways, that the more options we have, the weaker and more anxious we can become. The more choices we have, the more overwhelmed. There is no substitute for feeling a sense of worth and value in one's life, no feeling as great as knowing you are doing something meaningful and purposeful. Self-esteem is fragile at times, and is easily effected by negative thoughts and circumstances. But when a person creates momentum in his or her life, with goals, reasonable expectations and challenges, the negative thoughts can be minimized in their effect.
Gene Benedetto, Psychologist
The Benhaven Group
Benhaven Counseling, LLC
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