When in an anxious state, if we concentrate on it negatively in a bid to try and stop it, this is often counterproductive. (When has telling someone to calm down ever worked!) Anxiety is a feeling we need to acknowledge.
We can’t simply tell our brain to not feel something it’s experiencing, we have to teach it to recognise the feeling for what it is, just a feeling, and this recognition means embodying an acceptance of it too.
Anxiety in itself isn’t dangerous, but our actions or feelings around trying to suppress it could be. We cannot conquer anxiety with aggressive attempts at repression or oppression, we must calm it with kindness, reassurance and understanding.
This non-aggressive approach doesn’t mean we are allowing our anxiety to win. In fact let’s not think of it in terms of winning or losing. Anxiety isn’t trying to sabotage us, it is trying to protect us.
If we move towards the anxiety with kindness and compassion we can begin to help it calm and become less reactive. If we starve the anxiety of our negativity we starve the panic of its fuel. Treating anxiety in this way can help interrupt the anxiety cycle.
This is not a quick fix however. Our thoughts and patterns of behaviour have become entrenched and hardwired over time but they may have lost their relevance. Thoughts become outdated patterns, instructions that no longer fit our reality. So let’s be sympathetic to our old coping mechanisms but in doing so let’s also be aware of the here and now and allow ourselves to protect ourselves with our whole brain and not just with crippling fear.
Anxiety and the withdrawn child.
My work with Tamzin.
I always knew art and creativity could be empowering for children. That is why I trained as a creative arts therapist. Then I met Tamzin.
Tamzin (not her real name) was 5. She often cried at school and seldom spoke to her teachers or anyone. It wasn’t stubbornness that was clear. She followed instructions willing enough but there was a frozeness about her as if she was barely present in any real sense at all. When I observed her in the outside play area it wasn’t even clear she was playing, her engagement was so minimal. Joy seemed to be very much absent.
Upon her referral I was asked if I could “do therapy” with a child that didn’t speak. Inside I was secretly delighted even to be asked to. The quieter child often gets overlooked, goes unnoticed, becomes invisible and slips through the net. In my younger days I was one of those children. It was drama that saved me and creative therapy, with its use of non-verbal expression, was perfect for children such as her.
In our first session, although she came to the room without hesitation, when I suggested we draw, it was too big for her to even reach for a pen. I handed her one, it was the only one she used. Everything in her picture was the same colour.
The second session was pretty much the same. In the third, she took her own pen. What a moment!
The drawing gave us opportunity for some tentative conversation. I didn’t hurry her, I gave her time. She set the pace.
The truly transformation moment came when a pen rolled off the table. Without a thought I picked it up and playfully spoke to it about its attempt at escaping. There was a flicker of a smile. I didn’t comment on it, but it didn’t go unnoticed. As I placed the pen back on the table another one rolled off. I reacted. There was definite interest. I expanded the play to include the other pens in an animated dialogue about wanting to get away from each other. Laughter. I continued this game for a while before I noticed the silence. When I looked at Tamzin she was crying. I expressed curiosity about the contrast. “I want my mum.” She said. I didn’t try to stop the tears. I didn’t tell her it would be okay. I took her hand and held it loosely. Loosely so she could take it away if she wanted to, if my holding became too much. The tears stopped and we went back to drawing together still sat hand loosely in hand, for the rest of the session. I stayed with her in her pain and longing and allowed it just to be.
Her frozeness was masking a deep and painful fear. If she had fun away from mum it felt like a betrayal. This primary attachment was the cause of her anxiety, it was suffocating the life out of her.
With further work her world expanded. Although our sessions ended prematurely, in our short time together, her anxiety markedly diminished. To see her now it’s like a weight has been lifted.
Anxiety doesn’t only present as quiet as it did in this case. Anxiety can make us hit out, make us hurt those we’re most frightened of losing. Although designed to keep us safe it can be life limiting if we let it. It takes patience, it takes understanding but it can be calmed. What I know from my experience working with Tamzin is that it can be incredibly empowering and freeing if we’re brave enough to face it and let it go.