Q:

 

Dear Doctor George...

I am a man in my late fifties and I want to know what can I do about free-floating anxiety? I have tried prescription drugs, exercise, and deep breathing. Any other suggestions?

... Free-Floating Anxiety

 

A:

 

Dear Free-Floating Anxiety...

By "free-floating" anxiety Doctor George assumes that you are referring to a kind of a fear that isn't connected to any known object or situation; you feel anxious for no apparent reason.

Any kind of anxiety is an unpleasant feeling and, perhaps, especially so when you don't know the cause. It may make you feel slightly better to learn that anxiety problems are very prevalent in the U.S., so you are not alone.

We may be more prone to free-floating anxiety if we are not adequately processing our feelings about past and present painful experiences and stressors. The pain may come back to haunt us in the form of anxiety that seems to have no obvious cause. However, Doctor George has found that when people talk about their anxiety during counseling, various things emerge as causes.

As a man in your late fifties, you are going through the normative physical, psychological and social changes of late middle age, such as retirement, financial problems, children leaving home, the deaths of parents, and the deaths of friends and acquaintances. In addition, there are diminishing physical abilities and the growing awareness of one's own mortality. Many of these changes involve feelings of loss and grief: feelings that need to be felt and expressed.

Also, these present stressors can be layered on top of older, painful experiences from childhood that are difficult to identify, but that can cause chronic excessive anxiety. For example, if a person grew up in an alcoholic family, suffered some form of abuse, or had a dysfunctional family with poor communication and a chaotic environment, then they may be more likely to experience feelings of anxiety as an adult.

Learning to adequately process painful feelings of hurt, anger and sadness should ideally start in childhood. A good parent provides the child with empathy for what the child feels, and helps to sooth the child's pain. From this parental care, the child creates an internal mental representation of the soothing parent and learns to sooth himself. But, if our parents didn't do this for us, we are left with a deficit in processing and soothing our painful feelings.

When we have tried various ways to deal with our anxiety, but these haven't worked, then it may be helpful to see a therapist who can give us the empathy and understanding we need. From a sensitive and responsive therapist, we may be able to internalize the soothing presence that we missed in childhood.

Also, if we haven't wept in a long time, tension and anxiety can build up and it can be a great relief just to cry as much as we need to. It is important that our pain and our heart-felt expression of it be witnessed by another person as this helps us not feel so alone, and it gives us an experience of the empathy and human compassion we need (so that we can gradually learn to give it to ourselves).

Doctor George hopes this has been helpful to you and that you are able to experience relief from your anxiety and find peace in your soul.

Best wishes,
   Doctor George