How feeling lost or adrift is a big source of anxiety

July 20th 2023

Feeling lost or adrift is a big source of anxiety. Here is a way of getting you moving again


I was working with a client recently and he was describing feelings of  being adrift and lost.  He said he felt ‘rudderless’ and it was causing him a lot of anxiety.

As we spoke, a metaphor started to emerge and it worked so well, it is one I have now adopted and would love to share here in case it works for you too!

Being anchored

Being stuck in the past is like having an anchor on your boat.  It is there to keep you safe but it will stop you from moving.  When boats are anchored all the time, they start to get damaged and subject to the stresses of the sea.  Boats are designed to be moving through the water.

Our anchors are things in our past, things we cannot move on from or let go of.  Initially, they are there to keep us safe but in time, conditions change and they start to lead to mental stresses and also prevent us from moving on.

So the start of therapeutic work can often be cutting free from the anchors of the past so that you can be in the now.

How do you know if you have an anchor?

People who are stuck in the past will often be talking about previous events, thinking about the past or exhibiting behaviours that are no longer relevant to who they are today.

Client X for example, would always run from any conflict.  This was a behaviour learned in childhood to avoid punishment from a parent.  As an adult, they were still running away even though punishment would not be an outcome of standing up for themselves.

Catch the wind

The wind and waves are like the present.  You cannot catch a wind that has not arrived, on one that has past.  Therefore to set sail, you need to have got the basics in place: the sail up and the rudder in the water.

We have the same basics in life.  To react to risks or opportunities, you have to have the right resources in place.  The basics being well rested (good sleep) well fueled (good diet) and well hydrated.

How our mind works is hugely influenced by these basics and so the next step is to ensure that they are in place so that the ‘ship’ can sail well.

Why are these basics important?

If you had holes in the sail or the rudder was broken, regardless of the perfect sailing conditions, the boat would not perform well.

Sleep provides the energy that allows us to think and move.  A good diet provides the nutrition to fuel performance, mentally and physically.  And without hydration, our blood – the transport system of the body – becomes thick meaning that oxygen and glucose, two vital things the brain needs to work well, becomes reduced.

Without tending to these basics, anything you try to do to improve your journey though life, will be compromised.

What if the wind gets too strong or the water is too choppy?

Just like the weather, you cannot control the behaviour of others.  One of the most common forms of anxiety is the fear of judgement.  The judgement of another person is based on their experiences, their values, their beliefs – all things you have no control over. What you can do however, is control your response to those judgements.

In strong wind or choppy waters, a sailor would make adjustments to the trim of their boat to reduce the flow of wind into the sail etc.  We can do exactly the same – adjust how we behave to reduce the impact of those things we cannot control.  If someone judges you as being stupid this is a bit like a huge gust of wind that could knock you off course or threaten to destabilise the boat.  However, you can make the appropriate adjustments such as recognising they may be envious of you, or just having a really bad day.  And by making these adjustments, the ‘gust of wind’ does not destabilise you.

What direction do I sail in?

When working with this client he said to me, “I don’t know which way to sail.”

My answer….”It doesn’t matter as if when you see land it does not look attractive, change course!”

A big source of anxiety is not knowing what decision to make (which is like another anchor!)  When you make a decision however, you start moving.  Either it was the right decision or it was not and you can then make a different decision.  Either way, you are not stuck where you were.

There are lots of techniques that can help you make decisions – just like having  GPS or maps can tell you where land is even if you can see nothing around you but sea!  The anxiety of making the wrong decision can be much higher than the resources need to correct a bad decision.  The key to reducing that anxiety is to get moving.

The fear of going back to where you started.

Many people have said to me that they fear going back to square one.

Technically a sail boat could go back to the same geographical point it was at in the past, but it would not be the same.  It would be different water underneath them, different weather around them.

We can never go back to the past and experience it as it was.  Whenever we move on, there is learning and that learning changes who we are.

And therefore the more we move forward, the more we learn, the better decisions are made, the more resourceful we feel and the journey becomes much smoother and more pleasureable.

I would love to know, does this metaphor work for you?  Which element resonates most with you ?  Please let me know!

Happy sailing!!

Caroline Cavanagh is an anxiety specialist  and hypnotherapist in Salisbury, Wiltshire.  She is an author and professional speaker and would love to talk to you if you would like to know more about her work

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