Understanding anxiety and its protective functions

Anxiety is often a way for our mind to protect us from emotions that we are suppressing

Sarah Saeed September 04, 2021

Imaan was living at a hostel away from her own city to study at university and she just could not sleep. Her insomnia was triggered by the anxiety resulting from a recent conflict with a friend.And not being able to sleep was further distressing her, adding to the anxiety and increasing the sleeplessness. The fact that there was no other support system at the hostel, other than her now estranged friend, definitely made the situation worse.

Anxiety is a normal human emotion however at times persistent,intense anxiety can disrupt healthy function to the point where it starts hampering everyday life and its quality.Feelings of anxiety often manifest physically as heart palpitations, breathlessness, sweating, an immediately upset stomach, nausea and insomnia to name a few.

More often than not, anxiety is a way for our mind to protect us from emotions that we are suppressing as they are too heavy for us to sort through. The resultant anxiety makes you focus on it, rather than the emotions behind it.

In Imaan’scase, there was a conflict in the emotions she was feeling, where on one hand, she was angry at her friend for the perceived betrayal and on the other she as mourning the loss of a friend. But rather than feel both the emotions, she tried to repress the feelings of anger, sadness and even loneliness that she felt after falling out with her friend because they were too difficult for her to sit with.This repression led to anxiety, which manifested as insomnia.

Another common symptom of anxiety is panic attacks, while lesser known symptoms may also include phobias. Panic attacks are characterised by their sudden onset and often seem to occur out of the blue, without any reason. But the reality is panic attacks are usually a result of not properly processing triggers or stresses from the past or even the present.

Minahil , in her 30s and single, first experienced panic attacks during her teenage years. In her adulthood the frequency and intensity of the attacks increased and reached a point where she would wake up breathless in the middle of the night, coupled with palpitations and a sinking feeling that made her think she was dying. The initial attacks were so bad that she ended up in the emergency room more than once, thinking she was having a heart attack.

Her family did not help her stress levels during the panic attacks either, as they dismissed her experience, telling her she is creating a mountain out of a molehill. Minahil only got some relief after she learned in therapy that she was experiencing panic attacks, while she was also given a safe space to explore her feelings.

Anxiety is also experienced sometimes when there is a conflict between two parts of us. For example, a person may get angry when they are abused or not treated right, yet they may not ever be able to say that since they also hope to please others and gain their approval. In such cases, it is also likely that the expression of actual emotions was never encouraged in their family.

Shanzeh, 36, a housewife and mother of two, knew that she was a people pleaser since she was a little child. Her teachers and family appreciated her and the validation she got made her feel good during her childhood and early adult life. However, it was when she got married that things changed. Her in-laws were not as appreciative as her own family and she started to feel like she was being taken for granted.

There came a point where she would feel very anxious in their presence but still tried to please them as that was the only way that she knew to exist. There was a huge internal conflict between her real self (the self that felt humiliated when her boundaries were crossed) and the adaptive self (the self that would shrink to make others happy). This conflict was the reason behind her almost, perpetual anxiety.

Trauma experienced as a child or earlier in life can also lead to anxiety, especially when the present situation causes the same feelings to come up as they felt in the traumatic situation. In this case, more often than not, the cause of the anxiety is stems from an unaware state. Also in such situations, people tend to react in disproportionate ways to the situation at hand.

Mahrukh , a law graduate in her early 20s, was talking about a friend she is quite attached to when her hands started shivering, her stomach started rumbling and her palms became sweaty. She was clearly feeling anxious and it was manifesting itself physically.

Her anxiety was basically a manifestation of her deepest fears, stemming from her parents’ conflicts and history of being neglectful towards her and abandoning her. She was afraid of losing her friend, especially if she says no to them.

It is human nature to avoid difficult discussions as well as emotions, but if instead of being scared or avoidant of our anxiety, approaching it with curiousity and compassion may help us understand what causes the anxiety in the first place and what other emotions are hiding behind it.

Acknowledging our emotions without judging ourselves lessens the intensity of the emotion in question. The more we avoid feelings, so that we are not overwhelmed by them or even if just to be more positive, functional and happy, the more anxiety we experience.

A connection with God, supportive friends or family members, exercise, breathing exercises and meditation can all help manage anxiety. But if the anxiety is not manageable or one cannot identify what emotions it stems from reaching out to a qualified psychotherapist, counsellor or psychologist can help work with supressed emotions as well as anxiety.


Sarah Saeed

The writer is a practicing integrative therapist and can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


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