One thing I realise I talk about nearly every day in therapy is anxiety. It’s a way more common challenge than one may imagine, mainly because we are all born with the capacity to feel anxious, and with good reason. Anxiety is the feeling that motivates you to study for a test, or cross the road briskly and alertly, or run from a threat. It becomes a problem when it starts to run away with you: sometimes your brain misidentifies small or moderate threats as huge ones, and causes you to respond with a full scale body reaction to something as small as a missed meeting or some else’s dirty look.
It’s a very wide topic and I’m sure I’ll come back to it many times, but today I want to share a metaphor I’ve used in therapy lots of times: your anxiety is like a 5 year old in you who is afraid of the dark. And how do you respond to a frightened child? You don’t smack her or yell at her for being afraid. You’re doing this to yourself if you berate yourself for being ‘silly’ or ‘ridiculous’ for having worries. You also don’t agree with her: “Oh my lord you’re right! the monsters are coming!” You do this to yourself when you allow your thoughts to focus on ever-more terrifying scenarios, working the fear ever upwards toward panic, telling yourself horror stories. You soothe her.
You allow and accept the fact that there is fear, without ridicule (we are hardwired to look for threat – the caveman who ran away from the predator lived longer than the one who didn’t). And you gently encourage and soothe. You have kind conversations with yourself along the lines of “It’s going to be OK. This has happened many times before and it’s not so bad. It’s survivable. It will pass.” It’s also often useful to substitute the frightened child’s anticipation of a dire outcome with envisioning a positive one. Ask yourself questions like “How could this work out well?” or “What if it’s all going to be OK?” to allow the child to start envisioning a better and more soothing ending to the story. We are often consciously or unconsciously asking ourselves how things could go wrong, and the creative 5 year old comes up with many colourful (and terrifying) scenarios.
This takes some practice – we often have very strong self critical parts that stubbornly resist kindness and it takes a while to become accustomed to soothing. But in all things it’s more comforting to be your own friend than not! You will look at your own face in the mirror every day – it’s much nicer if you’re friends.
How many roles do you fulfil every day? How many times do you feel that you are so busy tending to others’ needs that you don’t have time for your own? How often do you take the time to do the things that you WANT to do, rather than simply the things you SHOULD do?
I see a lot of burn out in my practice. I see moms whose “me-time” is work, because they feel guilty being away from their kids. I see parents who work 12 hour days, even though they’re contracted for 8-10 hours of work a day. (Think of it like this: at work you trade your time for money. If you get R800 a day for working an 8 hour day, that’s R100 an hour. If you habitually work 16 hour days you’re now earning R50 an hour – you have halved your own hourly income). So often there is a sense that YOU are not allowed to be happy or take care of yourself until EVERYONE ELSE is happy first. Except that you don’t have the power to make everyone happy. They will NEVER all be happy. And so, by that logic, neither will you.
For giving to feel sustainable, meet your needs first. Then, once your needs have been met, THEN you can comfortably offer yourself to others. Not the other way round. Is your time valuable? Because if you don’t value your own time, no one else will. The world will always demand too much. The boundaries need to come from you.
And brains need contrast: we need times of work and times of rest, and if you’re on the work treadmill all day it’s easy to come home and continue to sprint along, project-managing your home life too – homework, bath time, dinner time, bed time. Then you wake up and start again.
We all need to build in times of rest. Here are a few ways to derail the production line of life:
First and foremost in all things is your relationship with YOU. Nourish it as you would nourish your connection with a loved one. You’re not allowed to say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to a friend!
©Psych in a Box