Stress & Anxiety Counseling in Chicago: Tools that Provide Relief

No Matter The Type of Anxiety You’re Dealing With, We’re Here to Help

image of a river bed at low tideA little bit of stress is healthy and normal. In fact, researchers have shown that a touch of anxiety or worry can help boost productivity, such as before a big test, exciting event, important game, or presentation at school/work. The stress helps you really “nail it.”

Many people who feel worried or stressed from time-to-time may also find that this can be a healthy way of “checking in” with oneself. Acknowledging stress can be one of the first steps towards reducing stress, by identifying when you have too many things going on and may need to take a breather or re-examine life priorities.

For some people, anxiety has taken on a life of its’ own. Worry may be near-constant, and at times you may be able to tell that your thoughts become irrational or you act out in ways that later seem immature or embarrassing. You may find yourself limiting certain activities and your life may feel constrained.

Mental stress can also lead to physical stress, such as grinding teeth at night or tense shoulders and back muscles. Working with a counselor with experience in anxiety therapy can help you reduce your stress, with proven tools to get anxiety under control.

New to Therapy?

Clients new to psychotherapy, or those that have tried it in the past and been disappointed often tell us that venting about their problems simply doesn’t work.

No matter how gratifying it is to have a great listener on your side, if friends and family can’t help you get out of your head and out of your own way, you know a therapy experience that is too passive isn’t going to be effective either. Our Chicago counselors offer concrete strategies and tools that stop anxiety in its’ tracks.

Therapy is a process. You may not experience immediate relief from any one session, however, over time you should notice that your commitment to therapy is leading to lasting change.

Your coping strategies are more effective, your relationships are improving, your thinking is more clear and positive, and you are living a life with mindfulness and purpose.

A great counselor helps you move into a healthy lifestyle and towards your goals.

blank placeholder

Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety symptoms can occur by themselves. However, anxiety and depression often coincide, and sometimes get mistaken for one another.

Anxiety can cause:

  • Lethargy
  • Trouble feeling good about yourself
  • Agitation, sometimes followed by fatigue
  • Difficulty motivating
  • Obsessive thoughts known as rumination
  • Poor concentration
  • Avoidance
  • Low self-esteem

These anxiety symptoms can look a lot like depression.

Anxiety may manifest as a sense of unease that things aren’t being taken care of as they should, or mistrust of friends and acquaintances. In turn, anxiety can contribute to perfectionism. Nothing ever seems good enough. This approach to life can damage self-esteem and relationships. These patterns can lead to or worsen depression.

A good therapist can help you decide what is really going on and how you can best tackle the symptoms of anxiety or depression that you’re experiencing. Break the cycle and feel better.

Symptoms/Signs of Anxiety

Anxiety can manifest in many ways, including:

Physiological symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety is a specific feeling and can include physical symptoms such as stomach complaints, chronic muscle tightness and knots, insomnia, and shortness of breath.

Sometimes people with anxiety experience more severe attacks, known as panic attacks. Symptoms of a panic attack can include a rapid or racing heartbeat, tremors, racing thoughts, extreme sensations of fear, and a desire to escape your current surroundings. Your system is literally being flooded with neurochemicals normally triggered in a “fight-or-flight” response.

When you have heightened anxiety or a panic attack, your system is over-reacting. You aren’t actually in any danger, but it feels like you are.

Perhaps you’ve even asked your doctor or local emergency room to check into whether you are having a heart attack, and you have been told that you don’t have anything medically wrong with you. Your doctor has told you that you are suffering from anxiety.

Counseling can help you learn to literally relax.

Changes in thought patterns common in anxiety. Anxiety often leads to predictable changes in thought patterns.

Our Chicago clients often tell us how different their thoughts are when they are feeling calm. You may wonder to yourself how you could become so irrational or worked up when triggered.

People who suffer from anxiety often find themselves “catastrophizing.” You may create a crisis in your head with little evidence that things will turn out badly.

Anxious thought distortions tend to manifest in predictable patterns. These cognitive distortions include over-anticipating that something bad will happen, seeing things in terms of black-and-white, assuming you know what people are saying or thinking about you, or taking things too personally.

When a person is anxious, they might also experience obsessive thinking, where one thought or scenario gets played over and over again, like a broken record.

Obsessional thinking is known as rumination, and can often plague anxiety sufferers.

A good therapist can help “train” you to monitor your thoughts, so you can begin to name these predictable cognitive (thought) distortions. Cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques, or CBT for short, can help. Over time a counseling process will allow you to interrupt and replace anxious or obsessional thoughts.

Changes in behavior are common with anxiety. Avoidance is one of the most common changes in behavior when a person is experiencing anxiety.

Because certain people, situations, or scenarios provoke such an unpleasant change in the mind and body, you might find yourself doing certain things less. In extreme cases, an actual phobia might develop, where even thinking about a certain situation or event will fill the mind with terror. This “trigger” is avoided at all cost.

Another common change in behavior for people with anxiety is compulsive behaviors.

Compulsive behaviors can include compulsive or addictive behaviors such as over-eating, binge drinking, compulsive masturbation, over-spending while shopping, or using drugs to try to calm down or forget about problems for a while.

This is known as “self-medicating,” and can often become a problem by itself. In some cases, addictions may develop as a result.

Some people suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and engage in rituals or compulsive behaviors designed to reduce their anxiety, but may seem meaningless to others. These behaviors may become so time-consuming and mentally consuming that other activities and relationships suffer.

Therapy for anxiety will help you regain control over your behavior.

Panic Attacks: A Debilitating Form of Anxiety

When suffering from a panic attack, the world suddenly feels like the walls are closing in, and every stimulus from within and without can feel threatening.

Much like a cave person facing down a saber tooth tiger, our “fight, flight or freeze” mechanisms engage in a way that is disproportionate to the situation at hand.  Our systems are designed to gear up for a perceived threat by giving us the energy and adrenaline to protect ourselves.

When our perception and reality don’t match up, this mechanism can work against us.  Our brains become flooded with neurochemicals which often lead to a host of somatic symptoms.

Physical symptoms can include:

  • Agitation
  • Feeling shaky
  • Disjointed thinking
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feelings of choking
  • Chest pain
  • Intense feelings of fear or losing control
  • Racing thoughts
  • Feeling numb or tingling in your extremities


Because the nature of symptoms associated with panic attacks are so rooted in the body, many people initially respond to these symptoms by going to their local emergency room for medical attention.

Although medical attention may be indicated to rule out underlying medical causes, your doctor may tell you that the true root of your symptoms is psychological.

Short-acting anti-anxiety medication may be helpful as-needed to curb an attack, or longer-acting daily antidepressant medicines may be prescribed to lessen underlying general anxiety. Our Chicago therapists work as a team with your existing doctor or have doctors we trust to help refer you to.

Over time, a single panic attack may become a panic disorder when multiple attacks occur, and fear of having another attack begins to limit a person’s activities or self-concept.

Once you have had several panic attacks, you may have a fear of losing control or “going crazy.” Even if you don’t have panic attacks that often, the fear of having another one may overwhelm you. You might start avoiding certain situations, just in case.

Initial triggers for panic attacks may be vague and difficult to pin down. Panic attacks may be triggered by a fear of having further attacks.

Sometimes a person with panic disorder may have very infrequent attacks but become so scared of having another attack that the fear can take on a life of its own. These avoidance patterns cause inhibition in multiple areas of a person’s life.

Related fears can lead to avoidant behaviors, as potential triggers for future attacks lead to avoiding suspected triggers.

Common panic attack triggers include:

  • Public transit
  • Highway driving
  • Public speaking or giving presentations
  • Group situations such as parties

Agoraphobia can sometimes be present. Agoraphobia is when a person may fear leaving certain areas they deem safe, such as their homes. The Coronavirus pandemic has intensified this for many people. Or, you may avoid certain situations that may trigger a panic attack.

Seeking the help of a therapist specialized in anxiety can help control panic disorder. Counseling offers relief from future attacks and avoidant behaviors.

Chicago Therapists Trained in Treating Panic Attacks

Your Chicago therapist should help you identify and address underlying issues that cause panic attacks.

Psychotherapy sessions may in part focus on developing insight into general causes of anxiety. There may be situations or relationships in your life that have contributed to your anxiety. We want to help you develop insight into these. Improved coping might include learning to have healthier boundaries in relationships. Assertive communication skills can help you, too.

Your therapy sessions should also be devoted to developing concrete tools for getting symptoms under control. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been found to be particularly helpful with this.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy will help you identify ways in which your thoughts may distort and exaggerate just before and during an attack, and how to identify and correct these distortions to get your mind back under control.

Panic attacks may also start when you have unhealthy coping mechanisms. Addictive behavior can result, or you might be over-using drugs or alcohol to feel better.

The use of alcohol is very common in people with anxiety disorders, as it provides short-term relaxation and relief from anxiety symptoms.  Over time, however, these symptoms often worsen as the “rebound anxiety” the day after a heavy drinking episode may lead to worsened symptoms. A vicious cycle of self-medicating begins.

Our Chicago counselors will help you develop healthy coping for life stress.

Body awareness and relaxation techniques such as deep breathing can help curb the somatic symptoms associated with a panic attack.

“Grounding” techniques can help you orient yourself back into your general surroundings, and help you recognize that your “fight-or-flight” response is disproportionate to the situation at hand.

Using all of these techniques and insights you will learn in therapy can help you get your life back. An anxiety therapist can help you reduce avoidant behaviors and reintroduce those situations and activities you’ve learned to withdraw from over time.

You may want to read an article Vanessa wrote on panic attacks for a national website for more information on treatment approaches.

Anxiety and “Checking Out” or "Zoning Out"

Anxiety is usually associated with an experience of high stress. Anxiety symptoms can show up as rapid thoughts, overwhelming fears, or agitated/nervous behavior. With that said, anxiety can sometimes be experienced in ways that feel like the opposite.

People who have chronically high levels of anxiety sometimes have the experience of “zoning out” or “numbing out.”

The technical term for this is “dissociation.”

All of us dissociate at times, this is normal. An example might be if you are going home with a lot on your mind, and you might find yourself not sure what exit or transit stop you just passed.

Dissociative symptoms make you feel like you aren’t fully “there.” When this form of zoning out becomes more habitual, it can become a problem by inhibiting a person from fully experiencing their feelings. You might have difficulty connecting with others.

Examples of dissociation can vary, but might include:

  • Spacing out or zoning out frequently, perhaps friends or loved ones often tell you to “snap out of it.” Perhaps you get so immersed in work or hobbies that you lose track of time or your surroundings.
  • Having the sensation that the world isn’t real, that you are living in a movie. Alternately, looking in the mirror and feeling a sense of disconnection with yourself, or feeling disconnected from your body.
  • Odd physical sensations, such as visual “snow,” or feeling disconnected from a specific body part.  Difficulty adjusting to dim or bright light, in a way that feels disconnected from your body in general.
  • Having trouble accessing your feelings or being able to tell what your true feelings really are.
  • Having a sense (or being told) that you react to emotional events in a way that is “too intellectual.”
  • Living more in a fantasy world than in the real world. This could include frequent escapes into books, video games or pornography.
  • Having difficulty feeling physical or emotional pain, or cutting or burning oneself just to feel more “alive.”
  • Losing track of significant periods of time on a regular basis.
  • Engaging in high-risk or highly exciting activities such as aggressive sports, gambling, cocaine use, or sexual activity as a way to feel more fully alive.

Although dissociation can feel very different from what we normally associate with the experience of being anxious, it makes sense that someone who is chronically anxious may begin to check out in this way.

Anxiety leads to numbing or zoning out. This is a way for the mind to protect itself from experiences that may be too overwhelming for our brains to process all at once.

For example, it is very common for victims of trauma, such as during a car accident or sexual assault, to forget all or a part of that experience. Trauma can result in not being able to recall specific details. You might not be sure exactly how much time elapsed. This is because of dissociation.

For people suffering from more chronic anxieties, every day becomes mildly traumatizing due to an over-exaggerated sense of worry and fear about everyday life. Checking out becomes a way to cope, to escape from the routine experience of high anxiety levels.

Dissociation can happen after a number of specific events.  For some, it develops over time in response to chronically high anxiety states.  For others, it may develop suddenly, after a traumatic event occurs.  Another common trigger for dissociation is when symptoms develop after a drug use experience, such as after smoking weed or taking acid.

Therapy can help you stay more in a balanced, middle state of living life more fully. We can help you develop the tools and insights necessary not to become too overwhelmed by stress, pain, or loss.

If you find yourself “checking out” on a regular basis, it is important to share that with your therapist so that you can get the most from your therapy experience. We will provide you with tools to stop checking out from life when you get stressed out.

Vanessa Ford and her associate counselors are experienced not only in helping clients develop anxiety management tools but in developing “grounding techniques” as well. Our expert methods will help you get your life back.

PTSD or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

It used to be that mental health professionals thought you can only develop PTSD if you were in a “life-threatening” situation.

What truly limited thinking that was.

We now know that PTSD can develop anytime you are in highly stressful situations, either once, or as a chronic state of affairs.

Examples of situations that cause post-traumatic stress disorder can include:

  • Childhood abuse: physical, emotional, sexual, or verbal
  • Witnessing domestic violence growing up
  • Life-threatening violent incidents or sexual assault
  • Traumatic separations, such as: death, removal from one family member or extreme separation following divorce
  • Experiencing domestic violence in an adult relationship
  • Growing up with an alcoholic or drug-addicted family member
  • Extreme bullying experiences
  • Surviving an accident or fire
  • Chronic exposure to stress through your first-responder or medical job
  • Becoming partnered with someone with an addiction or serious health condition
  • Teasing or rejection experiences growing up that never allowed you to feel like you belonged

The fears that can develop following traumatic experiences can become really debilitating.

You may find yourself becoming hypervigilant to the idea that something bad will happen again. It may be difficult to trust life circumstances, or even your most intimate relationships.

Perhaps you feel numb or checked out, and rarely react to anything, even when it should be stressful.

Small triggers may cause you to overreact, or get angry.

Bad dreams, nighttime fears, or nightmares dominate your evening.

Vanessa Ford has specialized in treating trauma from the very beginning of her career. She has dedicated her mental health practice to becoming a specialist in understanding these issues and providing focused treatment. Our team will develop a treatment plan that is tailored to your unique needs.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder/OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD for short, is a complex condition.

Many of the anxiety features we have identified in other sections of this website apply.

Some very specific anxiety symptoms set obsessive-compulsive disorder apart.

Symptoms of OCD obsessions can include:

  • Fears that you will become dirty, sick, or contaminated.
  • A preoccupation with keeping things organized in a particular way.
  • An irrational fear that you will become violent or sexual, or will develop a sexual orientation or gender identity that doesn’t feel natural.
  • Fears that you will violate a religious code or norm that you were raised with.
  • Extreme criticism over your body.
  • Health-related fears that become preoccupying. Web MD may become your obsession, and you memorize all the signs and symptoms that might mean that some small somatic discomfort is truly a cause for serious concern.
  • Obsessive list-taking, memorization of facts, or a perfectionist tendency to know the rules.
  • Intrusive thoughts that you will do something irrational, out-of-control or violent.
  • Urges to collect items, or multiples of items, even when you don’t need them.
  • Becoming irrationally disappointed when items develop natural scratches, stains, or other imperfections. You may even move towards replacing these items, even though they aren’t really worn out. Your friends and family reassure you that they are fine, but you do it anyway.
  • Superstitious beliefs, magical thinking, or an obsession with things being “lucky.”
  • An overwhelming fear that something bad will happen once you leave your house, such as an electrical fire, pet dying, break-in, etc.

Symptoms of OCD compulsions can include:

  • An excessive need to repetitively ask for reassurance, to the point that family members or friends become annoyed.
  • A need to tap, touch or rub certain items.
  • Excessive rituals that seem weird to other people.
  • Compulsive or addictive behavior, such as shopping excessively.
  • Frequent checking of items before you feel comfortable leaving the house, such as returning repeatedly to check that you turned the oven off, the doors were locked, or unplugging multiple appliances, even though most people you know don’t take these precautions.
  • Hair-pulling behaviors, known as trichotillomania.
  • Getting repeated or excessive diagnostic testing, even though your doctor has assured you that you are fine, or you are too young for this kind of test. Perhaps your health insurance plan doesn’t cover this amount of testing, and you are paying a lot of extra money for this kind of medical reassurance.
  • Using certain techniques in a certain way. Perhaps your family members have mentioned that they feel this is too controlling.
  • Weighing yourself regularly to make sure you don’t stray even a pound or two from your ideal weight. Or, you might pick at your pores so much you cause red welts. Minutes in front of the mirror become hours, while you pick apart every imperfection.
  • Counting or ordering things in a compulsive and ritualistic way.
  • Washing your hands, body, or household items in a way that is excessive or damaging.
  • Checking up on loved ones to make sure you didn’t harm them somehow, even though you have no memory of doing anything like that.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder requires a thoughtful and compassionate response. My mental health practice in Chicago offers the concrete anxiety-management tools to get this condition under control.

Hoarding Behaviors

We have found that hoarding behaviors often start with extreme perfectionism.

Perhaps a painful loss or pressures you place on yourself make it difficult to let go. Making choices of what to keep can be difficult.

Organizing your space can be challenging. As soon as you start on one task, you may be distracted by the next task. Soon you have become overwhelmed, and realize you haven’t made progress on your overall goals.

Hoarding behaviors are complex. Sometimes their root cause may be an obsessive-compulsive disorder, sometimes AD/HD may be to blame. Grief and depression can exasperate your attempts to get organized.

Whatever has caused your hoarding and disorganization, once it has taken over your home, you may feel truly stuck.

It can be embarrassing to invite friends or family over. You may feel so defeated, you give up before you really begin.

Our Chicago therapists want to help in several ways. We are not professional organizers, and we won’t be available to help you physically organize your space. We can offer tools to correct defeatist thought patterns. Behavioral plans we might suggest will help you examine how you have gotten stuck when you try to make positive changes around your home.

Anxiety and EMDR. Can Trauma Counseling Help Me?

Our psychotherapy clients on the northside of Chicago sometimes ask, “Can EMDR help with my anxiety issues?”

The short answer is, YES.

EMDR was originally developed to specifically help with traumatic experiences.

We now know EMDR can help with so much more.

Trauma is so complex. Sometimes it can form more of a stereotypical pattern, such as after a violent event or painful loss.

At other times, you may feel traumatized following certain life situations that don’t necessarily follow your idea of what is supposed to be “traumatic.” Maybe you aren’t “traumatized,” but certainly find yourself more anxious and keyed up than you used to be.

Or maybe the circumstances you are still struggling with wasn’t a one-time event, but more of a chronic state of affairs.

Any time you have lasting negative effects from a life situation or relationship, we believe that you deserve help learning how to fully recover. EMDR or other trauma counseling can help.

Origins of Anxiety

Anxiety can grow slowly, over time, or can seem to hit all of a sudden. Often chronic stress or unresolved issues can lead to the development of an anxiety disorder.

Examples of situations that might lead to anxiety include:

  • An abusive or neglectful childhood
  • Growing up with a mentally ill or alcoholic parent
  • Chronic bullying at school or work
  • A dysfunctional or abusive relationship
  • A major betrayal in a relationship (such as an affair or living with someone with an addiction problem).

Surviving sexual abuse, physical abuse, or assault, or combat stress may lead to “hyper-vigilance.” Hypervigilance means always being on guard for the next attack. This is known as post-traumatic stress because the trauma has passed but one’s mind and body are still on “high alert.”

Sometimes an anxiety disorder develops after recovery from drugs or alcohol. With little practice handling life without being able to self-medicate away stress, you may feel unable to cope effectively in sobriety and know that it is time to get some professional help.

Sometimes it may be difficult to identify an environmental cause for anxiety, but you know that chronic stress and worry runs in your family. This can lead to anxiety in two ways. Anxiety in your family may lead to a genetic predisposition to an anxiety disorder. Growing up in a household with anxiety may have led you to normalize a general sense of worry. You may not have been taught the tools growing up to deal with the natural ups-and-downs of life.

Sometimes anxiety seems to strike with no known cause.

Anxiety also has a tendency to worsen over time, and take on a life of its own.

A panic attack during or after a period of stress or during a significant life transition may later develop into a pattern of panic attacks with seemingly no trigger at all.

Phobias may develop in this way also- an unpleasant experience becomes a trigger for a sense of dread that is disproportionate to the risk or threat that the original trigger poses.

If you live with anxiety, you may feel threatened and know that it is irrational, but not be able to get it to stop.

Our Chicago therapists offer structured counseling interventions that provide proven methods to teach you to handle life stressors with greater ease.

How Does Therapy Help with Anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling but it can also influence thinking patterns and consequently behavior.

When anxiety becomes more chronic and begins to impact a person’s life more regularly, it is known as an “anxiety disorder” and it’s time to get some help from a professional.

Anxiety disorders include:

  • OCD / Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • General anxiety- when anxiety isn’t occasional but begins to dominate your life
  • Phobias, an irrational or excessive fear of something specific
  • Panic attacks
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder / PTSD
  • Panic Disorder- This happens when a person has panic attacks several times, and begins to fear having another panic attack. This can lead to excessive worry or avoidance of certain activities or triggers

Therapy can help with anxiety and depression in several ways.

A good counselor can help you find relief by developing stress management tools. Counseling can help you better name and identify what really happens in your body and mind when anxiety strikes. Your therapist may have you do “homework,” such as journaling about your worried thoughts, or practicing deep breathing or relaxation exercises that will teach you how to relax your body when tense.

Your Chicago therapist will help you think about ways to cope with stressful situations more effectively, so you don’t need to avoid them anymore. These methods are generally known as cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques.

Counseling may include linking you to a psychiatrist who can help prescribe appropriate medications, or you may want to talk to your doctor about your symptoms.

Therapy combined with medication can provide a powerfully effective team in addressing anxiety and depression.

However, our team recognizes that taking a medication is a personal decision, and you may find relief from therapy alone even if you choose not to take a medication. In some cases, a history of addiction may leave you reluctant to take medications you fear may be habit-forming.

A good therapist should also begin to help you identify the “core issues” underlying your anxiety. Great stress management strategies include insight into the origins of your anxiety.

In many cases, anxiety is a symptom of unresolved issues that need to be identified and addressed.

Insight-oriented psychotherapy is another key feature in getting anxiety under control.

EMDR may also be an option.

Vanessa Ford’s practice in Chicago helps many clients who suffer from anxiety. Ms. Ford and her team take a two-pronged approach to anxiety. Our therapists will help you develop tools to use to better manage anxiety, as well as help you identify and solve the root causes of your symptoms.

Call her to explore your treatment options and experience relief from the chronic stress of anxiety.

blank placeholder

Therapy Can Help

Work with a trusted therapist can help you assess your coping, and strengthen your response to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Therapy can help you ask: What is unique about what I’m currently going through? And what feels familiar? Vanessa Ford is a highly respected psychotherapist with several decades of experience in helping clients overcome difficult losses and heal from anxiety.

Her associate therapists are also highly credentialed and experienced experts with unique tools to help guide you. No matter how unprecedented our national crisis is, these proven techniques will help you adjust to our “new normal.”

Telehealth and Teletherapy

Remote telemedicine sessions are available.

Telehealth is covered by most major insurance companies and will allow you to access your Chicago therapist without leaving your home. Telemedicine allows you to log in to therapy sessions.

Access therapy during your lunch break, and avoid the commute. Telemedicine allows you to log in to therapy sessions from the convenience of your home, on your time.  

Our healthcare version of Zoom utilized by Ms. Ford and her associate counselors is HIPAA-compliant and so easy to access with a click of a button from any device. No logins are required and your name and contact information is never stored or tracked by the platform itself. Your privacy and confidentiality are always assured.

Reach Out For Help Today

Connect with an experienced anxiety counselor today. Most major insurance carriers are accepted, and self-pay options are also available.

Remote “teletherapy” sessions are available. If your ability to cope has become strained, a trusted counselor can help.