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The Surface of Anxiety

I saw this image recently of an ‘anxiety iceberg’, and this metaphor perfectly illustrates how anxiety presents externally, and the complexity of feelings beneath those presentations.

Anxiety has been a feature of many of our lives at some point. Stressful life events can pepper our waking moments with worry and panic. But sometimes, long after the stressful situation has passed, the anxiety lingers, and you can’t shake off that unease. Worrying has become a new habit that has taken hold, and you struggle to break free from its grip.

As soon as anxiety takes hold, this becomes a problem in and of itself, which will compound the source root of the problem. Anxiety can generate the feeling of fragility and decreased resilience. Sometimes there’s a fear that people will notice and capitalise on this, and this can exacerbate the anxiety, and a negative spiral starts to form.

What may happen then is that you start to incorporate ways of being into your structure, which, in the short-term, enable you to cope. But i the long term, these machanisms circle back to feelings of anxiety.

Here are the short-term mechanisms which present at the tip of the iceberg:


Anger is a protective emotion which can be used to cover up feelings of sadness, worry, fear, vulnerability, and shame (to name a few), and these feelings can be experienced as being too painful to sit with, as well as being a threat to our strong self-structure. The anger may have developed from a need to defend the self from perceived harm, and this defence can be extremely hypervigilant.

This interesting article by Michael Swerdloff from Providence Holistic Counseling Services alludes to the ‘anger iceberg’, and explains how anger can be a secondary emotion which can conceal emotions beneath


Many of us are guilty of procrastination. By avoiding facing an unwelcome situation, we can feel better immediately. But deep down, we know that it is inevitable that we will have to deal with things eventually because a situation can gather mass while we avoid it.

Emotional avoidance is when we divert our attention away from difficult feelings that we’re incubating. It may seem that the best way to recover from emotional pain is to avoid it altogether; but avoiding feelings doesn’t make the pain dissolve. It may just become re-distributed in your psyche. Have you ever felt wound up and upset over something which may seem trivial? This is often because the avoided pain is finding another outlet.


Being contingent can give us a sense of control, and can prepare us for worst-case scenarios in occupational contexts. But it can get out of hand when there’s a lot of energy dedicated to planning in other areas of your life. You may constantly feel on edge, and you won’t be relaxed and open to enjoy the finer, more spontaneous, moments in your life.

The inability to switch off can affect the quality of sleep you get, and sleep issues can make you feel more stressed and negative.

Lack of focus:

This is more of a symptom that could be a cost of anxiety, or it could be a feature of dissociation. That foggy feeling when you can’t concentrate, or you can’t pay attention to the present moment could be because unhealthy coping mechanisms take energy to maintain, and harbouring the feelings beneath also drains our energy and focus.

Self-help strategies are effective for mild-moderate anxiety. These range from breathing exercises, reducing caffeine intake, regular exercise, and meditation. But if you feel that these do little to alleviate anxiety,

it could be that there’s a wealth of feelings, beneath the tip of the iceberg, related to life events that you’ve never had the space to process. Counselling can help you to explore and process feelings in a safe space, and through this process you may gain some resolution.

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