Last month, our theme was “relationship anxiety”. We chose this topic because it is such a prevalent form of anxiety, with relationships so often in the spotlight of our human experience. But from our Deconstructing Anxiety model*, we know that any kind of anxiety, and in fact any problem at all, deconstructs down to a single source…what we call a “core fear”. Therefore, the solution to relationship anxiety is the same as the solution to any anxiety—we must understand how the core fear is operating, and work it through.
This also means that if we ask the question “how does therapy for relationship anxiety help?”, we really want to ask the more fundamental question “how does therapy help anxiety of any sort?”. In this article, we will examine the question by looking at the broadest view of how to resolve the core fear, so that any specific problem (relationship anxiety or otherwise) can be readily tackled with the basic principles we will lay out.
I was asked recently when being interviewed on the radio “What are 3 things to help with anxiety?”. While I generally don’t like reducing the complexity of the human psyche to a simple list of bullet points, this question lent itself nicely to an important aspect of the Deconstructing Anxiety model…what I call the three “doorways” to healing. Ours is a holistic model, addressing the “whole” person in mind, body and (to use the vernacular) spirit.** Therefore, our approach to healing will be through the doorways of the mind, body and spirit.
I told the radio host that the most important insight I could offer for how to help someone with anxiety is to be sure all three of these dimensions are fully addressed. That means that we cannot have a truly effective “cure” (i.e. complete and lasting resolution of anxiety) if our approach only addresses one or two of these domains. Let’s take a look at what this means for how therapy helps.
The Three Doorways
Therapies that address the doorway of the mind work primarily with thoughts. Either they look for insight (a discovery of the thought system underlying a problem), or they attempt to reveal the irrationality of the operating thoughts. Psychodynamic psychotherapy would be an example of the former, while certain types of cognitive behavioral therapy would be an example of the latter. The goal in both is to first become aware of the thoughts and/or beliefs systems that are maladaptive, causing suffering. With such awareness, these therapies then work to effect a shift out of those thoughts into more adaptive, workable understandings. (A true psychodynamic insight actually starts with awareness of the dysfunctional thought system but incorporates the emotions attending those thoughts as well. This will be discussed in more detail below).
Therapies that address the doorway of the body recognize that emotions get stored in the muscles as tension, physical “knots”, “trigger points”, etc.*** In order to effect healing, these therapies say, such physical holding patterns in the musculature must be released to establish a healthy free flow. Examples of this kind of therapy include the abreactive aspect of Gestalt therapy, Bioenergetics, etc. Other body-oriented approaches include the various “somatic” therapies, which emphasize the necessity of being aware of how emotions “live”–are experienced–in the body. This awareness begins the same process of being able to establish the free flow of emotions in the body, where previously they had been stuck or frozen..
Therapies that employ the doorway of the spirit work with the principle that placing one’s attention on something “higher”—a higher purpose, a more expansive sense of Self, a larger context of meaning—can facilitate emotional healing. This is the domain of transpersonal psychotherapies and certain existential/humanistic schools of thought. Examples include any type of faith-based counseling, logotherapy, the teachings of A course in miracles, and the newly rediscovered psychedelic-assisted psychotherapies.
The Essential Key to Healing
What is crucial to understand, again, is that whether one is seeking relationship anxiety therapy, anxiety attack help, help for being in a relationship with someone who has an anxiety disorder, or any other problem, the therapeutic approach must address all three of these doorways.
In the Deconstructing Anxiety model, we make the important point, however, that a therapy that starts with one of the doorways can readily open up the other two doorways as well. The essential key here is that the first doorway must be walked through completely. That means that if one achieves a complete psychodynamic insight, for instance, truly seeing the illusory nature of the thoughts at the root of a problem, such insight will necessarily create a release in the body and an expansion (release) of the spirit as well. If one starts with the doorway of the body, as in, for example, a full abreaction achieved through Gestalt therapy, such a catharsis will necessarily give rise to the same psychodynamic insight, where the patient realizes the thoughts creating their distress were unreal and have no more power over them. This will also result in a profound sense of spiritual expansion and freedom. And if one applies their faith and trust, for instance, engaging the doorway of the spirit successfully, they will inevitably experience a shift in thought and a relaxation of tension in the body as well.
In fact, this understanding gives us a barometer for measuring how complete one’s healing is: if there are still physical tensions, if there is still any subtle or obvious distress in one’s thoughts, or if any spiritual restrictions (i.e. a compromised sense of freedom, wholeness and expansiveness) remain, the healing is not yet complete. Symptoms can resurface in new forms. The root of the problem, still intact, can issue forth new “weeds”. The good news, however, is that we may also be sure a problem is fully and finally resolved when the remnants of any one of these three are completely resolved. And we will be happy to discover that when they are resolved in one, they are automatically resolved in the other two as well.
*See Pressman, T. (2019). Deconstructing Anxiety: The Journey from Fear to Fulfillment. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.
**For those who prefer a more academic approach, we may substitute the word “consciousness” or “awareness” for the word “spirit”, connoting the matrix within which thoughts, feelings and experience occur.
***Other somatic therapies, such as craniosacral therapy and myofascial release have demonstrated that emotions can be stored in the fascia, tendons, ligaments and more, not simply in muscle tissue.