Talking To Someone Seemed Too Simple, But It Ended Up Being The First Step To Healing My Anxiety

I was always shy as a child, avoiding conversation and always feeling a little worried. I put these feelings down to my age, and thought that once I’d grown up a bit, the awkward feelings would be a thing of the past. As I transitioned from primary school and into secondary school, the feelings seemed to follow me.

I was thirteen around this time, and knowing that I’d be in a new school with new people made me feel a heightened sense of worry I’d never experienced before. I felt the same worry I felt when my mum dropped me off in the playground for the first day of primary school. It was that same stomach churning worry that I knew all too well.

Even though I continued to feel this worry, I remember still thinking that I’d eventually grow out of it. The problem was, it was only getting worse. Whilst my new friends seemed like they didn’t have a care in the world, there I was, trying to fit in, but still feeling as if something was not right. At this time I didn’t even know that anxiety was a word! And I certainly wouldn’t of been able to tell you what it meant. So I carried on through my school years, forcing a smile onto my face, and saying yes to things when really deep down I wanted to say no and go and lock myself in my bedroom.

The years flew by as they do, and eleven years had passed since I took my first step into primary school. Even after all that time, I still felt the same intense levels of anxiety as I was approaching college. For what ever reason, my anxiety seemed to peak around this time, and I had my first panic attack. It was as if all those years had built up to a critical mass that simply tipped me over the edge.

I’d packed my bag and made my way out of the house as I normally did, walking down the main road towards the train station. I hadn’t made it very before before it started. Every passing car made me feel more paranoid, the sun was bright and caused me to feel blinded. Like many days, I had struggled with whether I was actually going to go in that day. I wondered if I’d be in trouble for last week when I’d stayed at home for three days. I was going back and forth in my mind wondering what they’d say to me. It was at that point I considered quitting and just going back to the comfort of my bedroom.

Although very anxious, I was also always determined, and so I knew that I had to at least see the year out, and so I carried on in the warm heat. However for a reason that I still can’t explain, my mind started to race, as if there were two voices telling my conflicting things. I started to feel frantic, as if everything was crashing down around me. The brain fog that I had become accustomed to sank over my eyes, and that was all I needed. I stopped, turned, and scurried back towards home. There was no way I could walk into a class with everyone looking at me. Surely they would know I was some kind of imposter that never truly belonged there in the first place. It just all got too much. Some people say that your life flashes before your eyes before you die, however in that moment, every anxious situation in my life seemed to play in fast forward in my mind.

Amongst the panic, I remember thinking to myself that this was just who I was, and likely who I’d always be. After all, I couldn’t remember a time that I hadn’t felt this way. I’d never be confident, outgoing, and I’d never understand why I felt so confused. I opened and closed the door behind me, and in doing so felt a huge weight drop. Amongst the quiet of the hallway, I heard my mum call out to see if I’d forgotten something.

This would be the first time that I’d ever broken down in the blink of an eye. She rushed over to me and asked what was wrong. I didn’t know how to explain what was going on, however I was completely convinced I was losing my mind. Of course I knew what anxiety was by this age, but I never knew it could make you feel like you were going mad. So that’s exactly what I told her. Blubbering, I told her I thought I was going crazy. It felt like the last eleven years were like a balloon that had slowly been filling with air, but the pressure had now caused it to pop.

My experience with anxiety had always made me feel lonely, as if I was the only person in the world who was experiencing it. Looking back I think I felt that way because no-one was talking about it. No-one was talking about mental health, not even within families. It just never seemed to come up. So whilst my mum tried to calm me down, I finally managed to get out how I had been feeling, not just for the last few weeks, but for most of my life, and even then I didn’t expect her to understand.  Like any good parent she comforted me, but more importantly, she revealed something to me.

She told me that she had experienced something similar. She explained to me that she had been on a mild medication for her anxiety for years. Rubbing my red eyes, I felt a sense of shock. My own mum struggled with anxiety? This was huge, because it showed me that I was not so different, and not the only person to of gone through it. Just being able to talk openly about it gave me a sense of peace, as if I had made this confusing part of myself a little less of a deal. I felt a tiny bit more normal. I’d never of guessed that she had any problems with anxiety, and so it made me wonder how many other people might not of opened up about it too.

The next few years were filled with doctor visits, medication, and ongoing soul searching. By no means did this completely fix how I felt, but it was a major turning point for me. From then on I found it much easier to talk about how I felt, because I then knew how powerful talking could be. Suddenly this ‘thing’ that lived inside of me was out in the open.

Now I’m into my twenties, I still experience stomach churning anxiety from time to time, but I’m a lot better at managing it. The fact is, I got to seventeen before I put how I felt into words to someone. Often times, it can be difficult to know how to tackle how you feel, especially if you are shy and an introvert like I was. However, my own experience taught me that simply talking to someone you care about is often the first step. For me, finally externalising my emotions opened the doorway to recovery. So if you’ve been suffering in silence for a while now, dare to reach out to someone. It doesn’t have to be a family member as there are plenty of online support groups these days.

Don’t be embarrassed, you are human, as is the rest of the world, and you never know, you might set off a chain reaction where others make the big move and open up too. We can all put anxiety into the spotlight and help those young children who feel lonely and embarrassed to understand that it’s okay, and there is support if they want it.


About the Author: Sean Clarke

Sean Clarke is a father and writer who has experienced anxiety and depression since a very young age. He now offers down to earth advice for those who feel lonely in their own struggles – just like he did for many years of his life. You can find him over at http://projectenergise.com/blog. His ever growing anxiety coping skills list for those that want to know what has helped him can be found at http://projectenergise.com/anxiety-coping-skills-list/.

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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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