In Emotion-Focused Therapy, we see anxiety as a kind of alarm that warns that something emotionally important is taking place, but you haven’t quite gotten hold of it or been able to deal with it yet. More concretely, we see it as if you have emotional needs that have not been covered, i.e. primary emotions that have not been dealt with. And when primary emotions don’t get dealt with, it is common to get emotional reactions to what you feel, i.e. secondary emotions.
Anxiety is one of the more common secondary feeling states. Anxiety can thus be called a secondary fear. It is as if your body is telling you: “Don’t go there! Do whatever you can to avoid feeling THAT!”
For example, let’s say you have something you’re ashamed of, where you feel you’re inferior, or need to hide some side of yourself (such as your appearance or ability), i.e. a primary shame. Then you may experience anxiety, or secondary fear, that tells you to be aware of the fact that people might see you for who you really are and you should hide or stay away. This might constitute social anxiety. In a way, the secondary social anxiety protects you from feelings of shame; being unworthy, unlovable or inferior.
Another example is when you feel a primary fear, that the world is an unsafe and dangerous place and you do not have a safety net of people who can protect you. Then you might experience a secondary anxiety to anything that could be a threat to your life and health , such as diseases, accidents, relationships, and future disasters, to avoid feeling the painful feeling of being unprotected. The anxiety then protects you from feeling scared or alone.
So note that the anxiety in a way is trying to protect you from something bad, but over time it does not help. It is both painful and tiring to experience anxiety, and anxiety steals all your attention, making it hard to attend to other needs. It covers the more primary feelings that might alert you to what you truly need in your life. If you are constantly anxious that others will discover who you really are and constantly hide yourself from being seen as yourself, you are also depriving yourself of the genuine recognition, acceptance and confirmation that you need to experience yourself as good enough as yourself.
Therefore, in Emotion-Focused Therapy, we work with two things: we work directly with the anxiety as it appears, to help you regulate it and tolerate it. But we are also work to explore the anxiety to find the primary feelings below so that we can help you get your emotional needs covered. When we manage to deal with the underlying feelings, the anxiety is reduced as it is no longer needed to protect you.