Anxiety in its simplest form, is an expression of Fear. Each persons experience of Anxiety is expressed differently. When the anxiety becomes all consuming, the person becomes withdrawn; their world shrinks, a way of making it safe as possible and to relieve fear.
The anxiety does not need to be rational to anyone, they may not even have words to describe it or an event to pin it on. This is extremely difficult for those parenting children and teens; you are trying to understand and support, but they themselves can not express what they are experiencing. If they do know what it is or struggle to make sense of it, they may fear expressing any part of it and fear not being understood; if they have a clear understanding they may have come to the conclusion that no-one can help, so expressing their fear will only cause you, the parent or carer, to become upset too; alternatively they mentally may be able to see that their fears are irrational and “know” that others will not understand and will dismiss them, so they keep quiet, stay hidden and hope that it will go away.
Some have compared Anxiety to a Black box. All the experiences are recorded and documented, but the severity of the experience is too painful to face; The Black box can become so large that it blocks the ability to interact in the world. So the Black box can get moved out of sight. This avoidance of the Black box is a survival mechanism. It is not necessarily healthy but may give the individual the space to begin strengthening and learning other mechanisms to deal with the feelings of fear, shame, guilt…etc which may be locked in the experiences in there. The Black box can sit there, all the time, just out of sight, always threatening to re-emerge. The person experiencing the anxiety needs to constantly avoiding looking at it. This requires an enormous amount of energy! This slows down all the brains thought process such as Listening, speaking and making sense of information; all interactions become incredibly labored and can cause further withdrawal from the world.
It is extremely important to not force someone to look at their Black box. Opening it up can have extremely detrimental effects if the person is not ready, willing and supported by professional people.What’s in the box is only of importance to that individual person, our acceptance and validation of it is not required for it to be real to them. And sometimes we may discover that some off-hand remark made as a joke sits in there larger than life, and there is no way we can take it back.
What can be encouraged is acceptance of where the person is at right now. Forging a positive, optimistic relationship with them now. Allowing them the time and space they need to find their own feet. Working with professionals; psychologists, psychiatrists etc. can create a supportive framework and a greater sense of normality and security. If they are willing, shrinking the Black box, or moving it to a different spot so that it is less of the focus can create more space for them to interact in the world. Talking positively about the good things, past, present and future. Seizing the moments to be with the person when it is comfortable for them further strengthens the bonds.
Anxiety is not simply feeling anxious and nervous. It is much more intense and disabling for the person experiencing it. The feelings do not always go away, and can spike out of control in random moments. It is not something you can “snap out of”, and it can not be cured by a “swift kick up the bum”. It takes time and patience. Working with the person experiencing the anxiety is key. And the one helpful Mantra I use is “Change is inevitable”…the situation is continuously changing, it will never be the same again. When things are really bad, know that they have to change, even if you don’t do anything but shower them in Love.