Charles Darwin (1809-1882), an English scientist, observed that the structures that produce panic anxiety in humans derive from the same evolutionary roots as the “fight or flight” reaction of a rat. This is why many people think that anxiety, despite all philosophy and psychology, is also a biological phenomenon that does not seem to differ much between animals and humans (Stossel, 2014).
Psychotherapist and novelist Barry E. Wolfe noted in his book “Understanding and Treating Anxiety Disorders” (2005), that: “No one who has been plagued by prolonged anxiety attacks doubts their power to paralyse action, stimulate flight, to annihilate pleasure and to give root to a catastrophic bias… The experience of a chronic or intense anxiety is, above all, a deep and disconcerting confrontation with pain.
Therefore, when we reduce anxiety to the physiological components we lose the true meaning of this symptomatology, since the human being reacts to events such as death, conscience, guilt, despair, daily life, while an animal can not worry about the symptoms presented or interpreted in any way; an animal can not be hypochondriac, for example (Stossel, 2014).
Anxiety is the fear of future suffering. The apprehensive anticipation of an unbearable catastrophe that one as a person can not prevent. More profoundly, it is a sign that habitual defences are failing against certain unbearably painful events for the individual.
In consultation, many patients, before facing the reality that their marriage is failing, that their professional career has not turned out to be what they expected, that they are approaching death or even that they are going to die, they generate symptoms of defensive distraction, transforming psychic tension into panic attacks or generalised anxiety, and even developing phobias in which they project their internal tension (Stossel, 2014).
S.S. is a patient who has numerous phobias. Because of this, imagined exposure technique was used during psychotherapy sessions. Previously, a hierarchy of dreaded situations was established and then a simulated deconditioning was performed in which the patient had to imagine certain images while doing relaxation exercises to reduce the anxiety that these produced to him.
Although the patient was safe at the clinic and even free to interrupt the exercise at any time, simply imagining the feared situations represented a torment of anxiety. The simplest and unrealistic images (being shaken by the plane’s turbulence and dizziness, for example) generated sweat and hyperventilation in S.S. who occasionally left the office to breathe and settle.
Throughout the sessions, the patient was asked to concentrate and think what exactly generated anxiety. For S.S. it was very difficult to answer the question and he only insisted that when he was in front of the phobic stimulus he could not concentrate because he felt terror so that the only thing he thought of was “to flee from the horror, his conscience, his life and his body”.
After five sessions applying imagined exposure, S.S. realised that when he tried to cope with the phobia, he was distracted by a sense of sadness and his mind was beginning to wander aimlessly. When asked what he felt, the patient replied “I feel some sadness”, and broke into tears. The therapist reassured him by saying, “We’ve found something”.
These explosions of sadness were repeated in the following sessions and S.S. began to feel relatively less anxious, and even happier. The therapist told him that “they had reached the core of the wound”. The patient asked why anxiety was stronger than sadness and “ambushed” him more often. The therapist concluded by reflecting: “As much as a wound may make you cry, it is less unpleasant than the terror you feel when you fly during turbulence”.