Fear of Everything
I had a really interesting client today. A young woman came in complaining of being anxious all the time, of worrying about things that might go wrong, of distrusting everyone, of never feeling safe except in a group of friends.
Her symptoms were getting worse, she was finding more and more things made her uneasy, and she was getting anxious about whether this would ever stop or if she was slowly going mad. She had started losing all her friends and could see no future if this continued. Her anxiety itself was making her more anxious. She was beginning to think that her life was closing down, and that she was losing her mind.
She said that she used be the most easy going person around, but that changed about three years ago. I asked her what happened at that time and she described a home invasion by some criminals. They had gone to the wrong house and started to demand things with violence. The client was punched, thrown around, and her father terrorized by these men.
She said it was not a problem as she had seen a psychotherapist and although they did not talk about it directly the psychotherapist said that it did not matter and the anxiety come from something else in her childhood.
I started talking about the home invasion and immediately she looked distressed and tearful. I told her that is was obvious that she had not gotten over it, and that I thought that was the cause of all her problems.
Embodied fear of everything
I explained that what she was experiencing was the body's natural reaction to a sudden unexpected trauma. She had never resolved the fear of the home invasion and that fear was now generalizing to more and more aspects of her life. The fear was made worse because it was totally unexpected. Far from having a bad childhood, as the psychotherapist had said, she actually had a lovely childhood, and felt safe and secure and loved right up to the time that the home invasion occurred. The contrast between her life up to that point and the sudden out of control situation made it even worse. She had no personal experience of violence up to that point, and it made her terrified.
I believe that PTSD is the result of a situation where the person feels that they have had the rug pulled from under their feet; that everything they ever believed in is no longer true; nothing can be relied on; that the world is suddenly seen as a dangerous place. This woman had all of these things and had not been properly counselled as to how to deal with it.
Relieving the fear of everything
I got her to relax, and to think back to the home invasion. She immediately got the feeling of anxiety. I asked her to locate it in her body. Then I got her to turn the feeling into an object, to describe that object in ever increasing detail. Eventually I had her move the object out into her hand and asked her how it seemed now. She replied that it was smaller and not important now. She said she wanted to throw it far away so it couldn't come back.
I got her to do that. Then I brought her back to the present and asked how she felt now. She that all the anxiety had gone, and she was quite looking forward to going out with her friends that night instead of dreading it. As far as I could tell all the problems had disappeared completely.
I thought this case was particularly interesting because it showed clearly how one incident can then expand to dominate the client's life. It also shows that the theories about the mammalian response to life threatening events is correct.