In my work as a Senior Counsellor and Emotional Wellbeing Advisor in schools, I come across a considerable number of young people who struggle with anxiety. For some, the anxiety they experience is so great that they experience panic attacks, avoid school, pass up social invitations, lose sleep and develop physical ill health such as sickness, stomach aches, migraines and irritable bowels, all of which reinforce or exacerbate their anxiety. Once caught in this downward spiral, recovery can feel insurmountable as individuals face a private battle with their minds and bodies and yearn for a life free from the shackles and sabotage of anxiety.
It may therefore not be surprising that anxiety all too often becomes a villain in people’s lives and this disapproving evaluation can serve to further aggravate the condition, as sufferers berate and scorn a part of themselves, at a time when self-acceptance and nurturing are so crucial for recovery. If, instead of berating and blaming, individuals were able to appreciate and empathise with the anxiety they felt, and offer compassion, understanding and support, they can begin to intercept the self-perpetuating escalation of anxiety and move towards a position of reconciliation and relief that comes with acceptance of any kind. This is exactly what one young person did in her quest to soothe her anxiety.
In year 9, she was referred to me because her high levels of anxiety were interfering with her ability to focus and remain in class, limiting her social activities, producing physical discomfort and causing her distress and embarrassment. As is the case for many people, her physical response to anxiety had the potential to be embarrassing and so she would feel anxious at the thought that she might feel anxious because of the physical manifestations.
During our sessions we explored her experience of anxiety and in turn began to unpick her relationship with it. Through psychoeducation, we considered how our anxiety works hard to protect us from potential threats by preparing our bodies to fight the threat, flee the threat or freeze. All the symptoms she was experiencing were happening to keep her safe and give her the best chance of survival. Except the situations she faced were not unsafe or threatening her survival. Somewhere in her timeline, she had developed a sense of vulnerability about being the centre of attention and getting things wrong. She feared judgement and this fear was triggering her anxiety response; a response that is helpful in danger but less effective in the face of modern societal threats.
By understanding her anxiety responses in this way, she began to recognise the good intent and protective mission of anxiety, as opposed to being destructive and attacking. She was able to thank her anxiety and then reassure the anxiety and herself that the situation was not dangerous and that she was OK. In summary of her journey and subsequent illumination, she wrote a beautiful mantra to say to herself when feeling in conflict with her anxiety. We pinned a copy to the notice board in the school counselling room as she wanted to share her words with others who have experienced a similar struggle.
The situation isn’t a threat
You are my misunderstood beast; my overprotective parent
I will remind myself why you are here
It is normal and natural to feel this way
I am not alone
Thank you for being there and protecting me but
I am OK”
Alongside this shift in her perspective of and relationship with anxiety, she also used practical strategies to rebalance and refocus her brain in the form of distraction. Distraction can be helpful in the management of anxiety because it helps break the self-perpetuating cycle; since as already mentioned, the more we focus on our anxiety the more it can grow and so diverting our attention to something else can work to reverse the cycle. In particular, activities which activate our primordial seeking system, prompting us to be curious and interested, can be especially effective at counteracting symptoms of distress due to the production of dopamine.
She therefore created a menu of helpful activities that all activated her ‘seeking system’ that she could draw upon depending on the circumstances she was in. Such a menu for any of us could include dot-to-dots, word search, spot the difference, seek and find (Where’s Wally?) activity pages and jigsaw puzzles. Of course, all of these are particularly difficult or impractical to do when in a lesson and so when feeling anxious in class she would discretely look around the room to identify things that are green, red, blue, purple and so on, find circles, triangles, squares and so forth and spot numbers that feature in the room.
Using this two-pronged approach to managing her anxiety, her sense of control increased, her self-acceptance and esteem improved and the occurrences of experiencing unbearable anxiety fell. Her participation in class increased, she was able to attend social events and generally felt more contented and satisfied. I find that this method of working with anxiety is transferable for many of our unwanted emotional responses which we tend to blame or deprecate when our responses get in the way of our happiness.
Contained in each emotion is meaningful information and messages to help us navigate this world. If we can spend some time listening to that emotion, understanding why it is there and reassuring it with positive, collaborative and evidence-based assertive self-talk, then we begin to reduce inner conflict and live more harmoniously in our own skin.
CXK’s Emotional Wellbeing Service is a confidential counselling service committed to improving and promoting the emotional health and wellbeing of children and young people across Kent.