Dear Anxiety

Dear Anxiety,

We’ve been together for a while now and we’ve come to know each other well. At first I was grateful for you, holding me back from stupid decisions, holding me back from embarrassing myself, holding me back from danger.

But now you’re just holding me back.

Too often now you’re first at the scene before I’ve even realised that you need to be. And you never try to hide that you’ve arrived.

You make my heart pound against my chest, like it’s looking for a way out.

You rush the blood to my brain, to my muscles, to my limbs.

You tense my muscles and quicken my breath.

You flood me with oxygen and ready me to move, even when there’s no move for me to make.

I feel dizzy.

A sweaty, waxy film sits upon on me and dampens my skin.

My limbs shake. Adrenalin surges through me.

I feel sick.

I want to vomit.

The physical feelings engulf me.

They make me sick. Literally sick.

I can’t focus on anything else.

You are so compelling, so I search for the danger – something that fits what I’m feeling and explains the craziness inside me. Whether or not the danger is real doesn’t matter, because I can’t help but act as though it is.

Now I’m anxious about getting anxious. I anticipate you before you’re there – that sick, clammy racing feeling.

Do you ever think of what you do to me? That’s a stupid question. I know you don’t. You don’t think of anything at all. 

You’re primal. I get it. All action and no thought. You’re the siren that screams at shadows to warn me they’ll pounce. But they never do. The only thing pouncing is you.

I hate the way I feel when you’re around. You stand around me like those unsmiling, unwavering security guards, ready to stand between me and trouble. But now you stand too close.

I can feel your hot moist breath on the back of my neck and when that happens, I can’t breathe. I would do anything to avoid you and sometimes that’s exactly what I do – I avoid you, or the places I know you will be.

At first I didn’t understand you but there was something about you that was strangely comforting. I’ve been terrified, actually terrified to let you go. I don’t know what letting you go will look like, but what I do know is that having you around feels bad.

You would say you protect me – from danger, from standing out, from failing, from embarrassing myself. I know you believe this. You’ve believed it enough for both of us. It’s never occurred to me until now that you might be wrong.

I’m looking too hard for the reasons to explain you. I hear you. I feel you. But I don’t know why you’re there. So I’m starting to think that you need me, more than I need you – and because of this I would be much better off without you.

You’re an alarmist. I’ve been paying too much attention to the drama you create inside me. Now I’m going to focus on the truth and it’s this: I don’t need you. I know you think you’re looking after me – I know that – and I’m grateful for you being there when I’ve needed you. But now you’re there whether I need you or not, and that’s not good for me.

You’re too quick to jump. Too quick to see things that aren’t there. Too quick to see trouble. Too quick think I can’t deal with it. 

When I close my eyes I see you and I feel you, but when I slow my breaths you fade. 

I know you hate when I do that. All the fight or flight, all the readying, all the work you do – it slowly falls away, one breath at a time.

So that’s how I’ll start. It won’t be easy. We’ve become a partnership you and I. Predictable. Safe. Needed.

I know you don’t mean to hurt me but the truth is that you do.

Thank you for trying to take care of me. I know you want to stay, and part of me wants you to stay – just in case. But I’m better off without you. So slowly, one breath at a time, I’m letting you go.


Anxiety can be debilitating, I know, but it doesn’t have to be. For more ways to deal with anxiety that work, see here.

 

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Dear Anxiety……It’s Over! | Doing It Afraid

[…] I just read the most awesome letter addressed to anxiety.  It was a Dear John sort of letter but it broke anxiety down in it simplest form.  I would recommend that everyone read it and see the lie behind this fear that we feel on a daily basis. We have to acknowledge the fact that it is only a feeling and there is a way out if we just turn towards the door and take one step at a time.  https://www.heysigmund.com/dear-anxiety/ […]

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Elexis

All I can do is cry. This is so touching and I thank you so much for putting this into beautiful words. I have been dealing with anxiety for 8 years now and just decided that I needed a change and that there is no real danger that I am hiding from. You put into words, so elegantly, what I am feeling and doing now. I started a blog doingitafraid.org to communicate these same feelings. Thank you so much for your lovely words! 🙂

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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