Some might say that starting therapy causes us anxiety because there is still a good deal of stigma around mental illness, that there is much misinformation about mental health treatment. I do agree with this. However, I believe there is another explanation, that is likely connected to the power that stigma still holds. I think that we are actually fearful of our own minds and what we may find if we unleash our deepest, darkest secrets not only onto ourselves but to another person. I think that human beings will avoid being with their own thoughts, to delve into the deep recesses of their own minds for fear of what they may find. So perhaps the real question is…
Why do we find our own minds so scary??
More and more I’ve noticed that people coming in to see me for therapy are bogged down by how fast the world is moving. They are struggling to maintain this speed by keeping up with the latest information on the internet and social media. They are finding it hard to put down their phones, even for 5 minutes to be present in a conversation with their dinner companions. Or when they have a few minutes free at work, rather than taking a few quiet moments to themselves, they are picking up their phones to play Candy Crush. There is a constant pull to fill every moment with something, rather than allowing time for stillness and contemplation. And this pull is leading to an ever increasing amount of anxiety because there is so much information to consume and not enough time to consume it all. And a part of this anxiety is that we are being pushed farther and farther away from ourselves.
Often my clients will say, “I don’t know how to relax”. And why would they? They spend much of their time either working or filling their minds with information, images, and other distractions. So then when it comes time to be still and quiet, to get to know what is going on in their minds, as we are apt to do in a therapy session, it is incredibly uncomfortable. And who would want to move toward this discomfort on purpose? Not many! It is much more pleasant to mindlessly scroll through Facebook or check out a friend’s new cat photos on Instagram.
What might happen if we were to take that 5 minute break at work and instead of picking up our phone, we close our eyes and just feel ourselves breathing? We may notice that the breath slows and we feel a bit more relaxed, a bit more slowed down. But what we also start to notice is how fast our minds are moving from thought to thought and sometimes these thoughts are not pleasant. Often, they are mean and shameful. And what does this mean about us, if we have these mean and shameful thoughts, about others and ourselves? Do we really want to get to know more of this person that has such thoughts?
So why the hell would we want to go see a therapist that will encourage us to look at these thoughts and the self who is having them a little more intimately? That sounds like a horrible idea! It makes so much sense that this idea would repel a person from making that phone call to a therapist to set up an initial appointment. It seems more ideal to move away from this understanding and avoid feeling the discomfort that will come with it. Because, why would we want to move toward the discomfort?
Is it possible that by moving closer to the anxiety of what is really in our minds, by understanding intimately what goes on there, that we can make positive changes in our lives? Is it possible that this exploration that therapy provides can soften some of those hardened edges and find the relief we are looking for? Let me put it to you this way: have you ever had the experience where you have conflict with a person and you notice that the more you avoid talking to them, the worse you feel and the harder it is to resolve the conflict when you do get together to talk? So much resentment, hurt feelings and anger start to build and sometimes to the point of explosion. However, once you do come together to talk, when you move toward the anxiety around that interaction, you feel relief and less suffering, even if there isn’t a perfect resolution. It is the same with our minds. The more we avoid understanding, the worse we feel. We must attempt to befriend our minds enough to start a conversation. And what can come from this conversation is sometimes scary, often meaningful and never boring.
But this is not a journey that you have to do alone. In fact, I don’t recommend that at all. With the help and guidance of a therapist that you feel comfortable with, the journey to get to know your mind can be just a bit easier, knowing we have a partner through it all. I encourage you to try this out. If you feel it is time to start therapy, perhaps to heal some anxiety or trauma, move toward the discomfort of taking that first step to call a therapist. You may be pleasantly surprised by what happens next.
Dr. Christina Barber-Addis is the founder of New Awakenings Therapy and is a mindfulness-based, licensed psychologist in private practice in Encino, California. She specializes in treating adults with anxiety by incorporating mindfulness meditation into her therapy practice.