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Aug 16, 2016

Our Values Lie Behind the Fight or Flight Response

Recently, I have found myself so petrified by anxiety because I know that my life is going to change very soon. I will be out of school, and I will need to start my first real full-time job as a counselor (in training). I feel this uncomfortable, agitation to “get going” on something important, and the voice in my mind is telling me how I should be so much farther now than I am now. I should be better at being a counselor, a student, an employee, and even as a person. Something inside me is so torn between this desire to do something helpful in the world as a counselor, and also to express my creativity as a writer, an artist and yogi. This thing in my mind is screaming that I should be better at all of these things, and here I am in this state of angst; desperately desiring to work hard and make something of myself, but also desperately wanting to throw it all away and run as fast as I can in the opposite direction. I’m afraid I’ll fail, that I am not good enough or smart enough. I am too lazy. I have been avoiding my counseling books and anything that I am responsible for because with those activities, the anxiety follows with that awful voice.

As a counselor, I know how to help clients in this situation. I know that in times where we feel frozen in the midst of this heightened arousal state, our bodies demand that we act. That we fight. That we flee. That we do something to eliminate the threat. However, in this situation, the threat is the stress I have placed on myself from constantly striving for that unattainable standard of excellence and achievement. Sometimes, I find myself utterly terrified of what will happen out in the big, bad, scary world. In these moments, I know, the best way to help clients who feel stressed out is not to ask them to rationalize with that voice in their heads and it is definitely not the right time to weigh the pros and cons to make important decisions in the midst of a stress response. The first thing I would do with a client is to help them de-escalate through relaxation training, affirmations practice, mindfulness, and defusion exercises.

Next, I would help my clients find ways of coping with anxiety and fear, because it is not something that ever fully goes away. It is a part of the human experience, and as such we must not only accept fear, but allow it. Like any other behavior, fear performs an adaptive function in our lives. Fear alerts us to potential dangers in our environment. This triggers the physiological responding of the sympathetic nervous system which initiates the “fight or flight” response, also called “hyperarousal.” When we understand the biological function of this stress response, we can see that it is not productive to seek to eliminate the experience of fear, but rather to harness the power that fear has in our lives.

In my own experience, I see that my anxiety demonstrates how important this work is to me. If I didn’t care about being the best counselor I could possibly be, then why would I be so terrified of failing at it? There are several personal values that underlie my career choice that are very important to me, such as my desire to help people, to make a difference in the world, to show honor, integrity, and fidelity to this work. I try to help my clients see that anytime we find ourselves avoiding taking action because we feel anxiety, there are important values behind that anxiety. We avoid action in an attempt to stop the anxiety, but this may lead to missing out on taking steps towards what is truly important to us. However, if we can accept that anxiety will happen, we can pick up the anxiety and carry it with us as we walk in the direction of our dreams anyway. Thus, as a counselor I would attempt to help the client change his focus from struggling against a big scary anxiety monster to expressing what values are underlying this fear. As we learn to take valued actions and walk through the muck of the pain in the human experience, we are able to cultivate a deep, meaningful sense of purpose in life. The short-term result is that we are intrinsically reinforced by the internal connection to what is meaningful, and the long-term result is that we choose healthy habits and characteristics that are in line with what matters most to us. The end result is that we are able to leave a legacy that is meaningful.

As for me, I am preparing myself to launch into my career as a counselor. Leaving my comfort zone at graduate school is not going to be easy, and I know that achieving my goals with excellence and integrity will be a challenge. I realize that this anxiety is not something I will ever fully “shake off,” and that I must continue working towards my own personal development. I think it’s definitely important that counselors share their struggles and continue to seek support. I don’t know about you, but as soon as I start thinking I have my “baggage” all together and I’m over it, I start to lose touch with myself. I start slipping into that “expert” role that I swore to myself I would never be with my clients. And so with this post, I hope to demonstrate that counselors need to get real and deal with our fears, insecurities, and imperfections all throughout our lives too. 
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Hanna Rodriguez is a counselor in training at McNeese State University, and is completing her internship at the McNeese Kay Dore Gambling Treatment Program in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She is interested in viewing mental health from a wellness perspective. Read more about Hanna at: 
http://hannarodriguez1.wix.com/counselorintern


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