Overcoming Anxiety: The Story of “Alan”

Many clients work with me to overcome anxiety. My strategy for helping clients is quite simple. When clients contact me for their first appointment, anxiety has completely taken them over. There is no longer a separation between them and the “anxiety.” Basically they have become their anxiety.

You Are NOT Your Emotions: In the first session, I talk with my clients about how anxiety is NOT who they are. They are NOT a nervous Nelly or an anxious person. Then we discuss who they are WITHOUT their anxiety. A smile sometimes breaks onto their face as they remember who they are without “anxiety.” We spend time discussing their achievements, happy moments, and times in life when anxiety was not present. 

Describe Anxiety with Metaphors: As I help clients disconnect them from their anxiety, I begin to describe anxiety as a creature or dark cloud. You might also hear me describe anxiety as a fast moving river. For example, you are on a boat in the river. At first the river is moving at a normal speed and then the river suddenly changes getting faster and faster until you are thrown off the boat and begin drowning in the rapids. My clients seem to understand this metaphor because they have been “drowning” in their anxiety for a long time. 

Observe Anxiety from a Higher Perspective: After we’ve spent time describing anxiety, I begin the process of separating the anxiety from my clients. We observe anxiety from a higher perspective as if outsiders or anthropologists studying an unusual phenomenon. You might even hear me say, “Here you are and here is your anxiety,” as I make large hand gestures to show the difference.

Visualize Anxiety as an External Entity: Next I will ask clients to visualize “anxiety” as something external to them. Everyone characterizes their anxiety in different ways.

The Story of “Alan”

One of my favorite anxiety characters was named, “Alan.” “Alan” was an external manifestation of my client’s anxiety. In the story below, I describe the 5 simple steps that I used to help my client overcome “Alan.”

  1. Describing Alan. Alan looked sort of like a secret agent from the movie, “Men in Black, ” except with no face. Alan was a very scary character who tormented my client day and night.  My client hated Alan and everything Alan was doing to him. His family also hated Alan. Alan was energized by my clients hatred and resistance. He got bigger and bigger every moment my client hated him. My client listened to Alan and his rants day and night. There was never any escape from him. There weren’t enough antidepressants or tranquilizer to stop Alan.
  2. Distracting Alan. At first I trained my client with a variety of meditation and cognitive behavioral techniques to distract himself from Alan. Sometimes the strategies worked and he had relief from Alan for a few hours and then a few days. But Alan persisted and would come back to attack him.
  3. Understanding Alan. Gently and very gradually, I worked with my client to understand and respect Alan. I would calmly ask my client, “Do you think Alan is trying to help you?” At first my client said, “No!” But then I would say, “Maybe Alan is trying to protect you.” After all, Alan was his flight or fight instinct. Could Alan have been an amazing fighter in prehistoric times? Had modernization changed Alan into a distorted, disfigured version of himself unable to act effectively or skillfully in today’s modern world? The once amazing Alan had now become a tormentor.  NOTE: If you are a survivor of childhood trauma or experienced an acute trauma, your anxiety will be even more distorted and disfigured than ordinary anxiety.
  4. Developing compassion for Alan. Only when my client began to see Alan’s true nature as a wonderful helper and primitive instinct, did Alan start to truly change. My client began to have compassion for Alan. He could sit with Alan and his antics and talk to him. He could support Alan to see the world in a more realistic way. He could explain to Alan about modernization and that the threats that exist today do not deserve the same magnitude of a reaction as the threats of warriors or wolves swooping into attack him in the middle of the night. In modern day, the threats were more psychological and my client needed to help Alan develop the skill to cope with chronic psychological threats. 
  5. Accepting & befriending Alan. Gradually my client began to accept and befriend Alan. He began to smile at him. My client no longer took Alan’s reactions as seriously. Alan was now separate from my client and no longer had power over him. He still existed but was more tempered and realistic. If Alan started to get unruly, my client could come in with skill and compassion to manage Alan, and Alan would listen. 

If you would like help overcoming anxiety, please feel free to reach out to me for an appointment

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