I have always been a visual person. When I read a book, I see the characters’ faces. When I listen to music, I know how it moves. When I say the word “armchair,” I picture an armchair (purple, wooden legs).
When I was a kid, I thought everyone knew that A’s were yellow and 3’s were green. That “fairness” was blue and the phrase “wait and see” looked like a handful of white Styrofoam balls. My favorite color was the letter J, and I loved “P-U-F-F-I-N-S” because it felt so luxuriously soft.
Turns out, I have a touch of synesthesia (and a very vivid imagination). And while this doesn’t affect my daily life very much, it did help lead me to the field of art therapy.
Art therapy is a branch of counseling that encourages individuals to explore their thoughts and ideas visually. Art therapists believe the choices we make during the art process (how a material is manipulated, for example, or the words we use to describe our art) helps others understand how we perceive and move through the world.
In graduate school, my professors would ask us questions like:
Where in your body do you feel sadness?
What sound is that feeling?
What does that sound look like?
How big is that word?
These seemed like super, uh, far out questions at the time, and it took a while for my cohort and I to get used to using this type of language to describe our ideas, relationships, and emotions. I eventually drank the Kool-Aid, however, and didn’t feel as silly using my new far out language with my peers. The more I practiced reframing the way I saw and talked about my experiences, the better I understood why phrases like these have purpose (and substance). It’s now the way I relate to my clients in session.
If I were asked to draw the “shape” of confidence, the first thing that comes to mind is a huge marshmallow. If I had to “color” of my fella’s name, I might use mint green, like toothpaste. To me, marshmallows are indulgent, soft, and child-like; and mint green toothpaste is domestic, intimate, and clean.
When I explore how the words “indulgent, soft, and child-like” relate to feeling confident, I learn a little something about how I understand confidence.
Soft, child-like… Tell me about the last time you felt confident.
Further, the descriptors “domestic, intimate, and clean” may help an outsider better understand the way I see my partner (or relationships in general).
Domestic and intimate sound positive to me… But tell me how you view them.
Art therapists walk alongside their clients during the art process to encourage ideas and discuss conclusions. As an aside, I’m not saying these conversations are unique to art therapy- on the contrary, art therapists and counselors come to similar conclusions because they work from a similar framework and toward similar goals. But the path differs.
Therapists (art therapists, in particular) get a bum rap as interpreters, mind-readers, and quacks… but that’s really not what’s going on here. Houses, trees, and people mean little without input from the artist- and art therapists are not in the business of putting words in your mouth (or pictures on your paper). Art therapists partner with their clients to discover symbols, themes, patterns, etc. in an art piece, explore their significance (or insignificance) and apply this knowledge to therapeutic goals.
Marshmallows are child-like and indulgent to this artist, but may be expensive, nauseating, or Ghost Buster-y to another.
In addition to being an art therapist, I also identify as an anxious person. At age 12, I began to socialize less, scrutinize myself more, and worry excessively about absolutely everything. As an adult, my anxious thoughts tell me I’m an incapable and unlikeable person who doesn’t have anything of value to share with the world. Art-making has made these thoughts feel less threatening and helped me talk about my experiences on my own terms. Seeing my anxiety objectively on paper, instead of feeling it in my body, also helps me find solutions to it.
Pictures can be a great jumping-off point for those of us who have trouble verbalizing emotions (due to trauma, a disability, anxiety, a preference for visual language, etc.). Art images encourage honesty, organization, and make our feelings heard. Art can be used to distract a stressed mind (see my post on the adult coloring book phenomenon here), foster confidence, and encourage us to sit in quiet and stillness (this is so important).
You don’t need to have synesthesia to benefit from art therapy, most people don’t. Art doesn’t always flow easily from our fingertips, art therapists get that and they’re here to help you get started. The goal of art therapy isn’t to hang your final art piece in a museum (though you may want to), it’s to develop a new language to describe experiences, feelings, events, and ideas. My clients have written their gratitude in love letters addressed to themselves, ripped up their memories and created new narratives from the scraps, and placed their hurt in carefully constructed boxes. Art therapy works, of that I am sure. But I would be honored to learn how it works for you.
Jess Kimmel, MSAT, LLPC is a limited licensed art therapist and counselor in the mid-Michigan area. She is currently employed as a Neuro Rehabilitation Aide at Hope Network East Lansing and a part-time Art Therapist at Sanford House in Grand Rapids. She can be contacted via her website www.jesskimmel.carbonmade.com. She enjoys writing, eating pizza, and watching too much true crime television.
When someone you love is suffering from anxiety or any other kind of mental health problem, your first instinct is to do everything you possibly can to help and support them. Anxiety disorder is a long-term condition, and the causes of the condition are not fully understood by medical professionals, meaning that treatment is generally carried out for an extended period of time in order to be effective. The battle against anxiety disorder is a marathon, not a sprint, and finding the treatment plan that is right can be difficult, and is often a matter of trial and error. Accepting that you have anxiety disorder then and that you need professional help is a brave decision to make, and will certainly not be easy.
The problem is that, although their illness is not their fault, the time-consuming nature of controlling and reducing the symptoms of the condition means that caring for someone who has anxiety can be both physically and emotional draining. Relationships involving anxiety disorders face many challenges: you will probably find that you bear the brunt of completing family activities, such as paying the bills, doing the grocery shop and even taking the children to and from their after-school activities. But it is important to provide as much support as possible.
Don’t Loose Yourself
Looking after a loved one with anxiety is important, and the more support anxiety sufferers have throughout their treatment, the more likely they are to come out the other side. However, it is also important to look after yourself, to ensure that you don’t suffer burn out of begin to suffer from compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a condition that occurs when individuals are exhausted and weighed down by the weight of caring for someone with a long-term illness, and in turn, they begin to feel unwell themselves, suffering from symptoms such as anger, depression, headaches and sleep disturbances. Self-care is essential when you are primarily responsible for caring for someone else, and there are many ways that you can care for yourself while simultaneously caring for the person that you love. It’s important to take time out for yourself: taking a walk and getting some fresh air, joining a gym, or meeting with friends for dinner or a cup of coffee are all great ways to reconnect with yourself and remind yourself that you exist outside of the illness of the individual you are caring for.
Learn About the Condition
When you are caring for an individual who is suffering from an anxiety disorder, it can be massively helpful to learn as much as you possibly can about their condition. This can help you to understand why the person you are caring for will act in a certain way, which is turn will alleviate any anger, guilt, and fear that it is inevitable you will feel at some point during the process. Acquiring this knowledge will help you to separate the illness from the person that you love and realize that their anxiety and the way that it sometimes causes them to behave is not directed at you and certainly can’t be helped or avoided: it is simply a symptom of their condition. Part of learning about the condition is learning about the treatment, and encouraging the anxious individual to continue with that treatment, even when it becomes difficult, overwhelming or inconvenient.
Don’t Make Assumptions
Finally, don’t make assumptions about what your loved one needs or second guess what they are thinking and feeling. It is important that you take a step back and listen to what they are thinking and what they need, rather than bulldozing your way through the situation. Remember that you don’t understand what suffering from an anxiety attack feels like, and therefore that while you can empathize with them you can’t truly know what they need. Ask. Question what you can do to help, listen carefully to the response and then follow through and deliver. There is no doubt that caring for and living with an individual who is suffering from anxiety can be challenging for both parties involved, but by working together it is possible to create a situation that is life enhancing and really helps.
Helen Fields is a freelance writer and mother. She juggles her work around her home life. In the past she has suffered anxiety problems and now seeks to help others through writing about these issues and what life is like managing these kinds of problems.
Having OCD has been the biggest challenge that I have faced in my life thus far. After over four years of really struggling, I am happy to say that I am on the road to recovery and I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. For me, my OCD has taken ahold of a few different obsessions but has primarily grasped onto contamination fears, most specifically the fear of contracting HIV.
The scariest obsessions for me are that I will somehow contract HIV through casual contact and then unknowingly pass it along to others. The feeling of guilt that comes from this thought is the hardest part. My obsessions caused me to compulsively wash. These compulsions include things such as hand washing, showering, cleaning our house and belongings, and laundering our clothes unnecessarily. The obsessions also lead me to ask for reassurance all the time.
For example, I would feel the need to ask my husband if I should be worried about what happened that day, or if he would be worried if that had happened to him. Although I knew that these obsessions were completely irrational, that it is not possible for HIV to be spread in the ways that I feared, my anxiety wouldn’t let go of its grasp on me.
Although I have a feeling that I struggled with it slightly throughout my life, OCD really hit me in college. It hit me like a load of bricks. I was fortunate enough to see a therapist that year in my hometown and I will forever be grateful for him and all of his help. He knew that I was struggling with OCD right away. Because of him I was spared time wondering what was wrong with me or what to do about it, something I know I am very lucky to have been spared.
A few months into treatment with him my husband and I had to move to Michigan, and during that time my OCD was much improved. I didn’t seek out further treatment in our new town right away because I was feeling so much better. However, about six months later it came back worse than before. I knew that I needed help again so I did a lot of research and was led to the Anxiety Resource Center of Grand Rapids. I attended a group session one Wednesday night and met Alan Carriero. I decided to seek out counseling with him, and almost one tough year later, I am feeling better than I have since before my OCD really hit me hard.
Throughout this past year I saw Alan weekly, sometimes three times per week, to do Exposure and Response Prevention therapy. At first I remember feeling like I would never feel better, or that I wasn’t sure how this would truly make my symptoms decrease. All I knew is that I was not okay with feeling the way I felt for the rest of my life. So, I stuck with it and worked hard every week in Alan’s office and on my own.
By late springtime, due to a variety of different things happening in my life, my OCD started to get even worse. This was a really hard time for me. I was struggling at my job and it was very hard on my husband and I. I started feeling depressed on top of it all too. I remember feeling like I was safer at home, away from other people. So, I started isolating myself from my family, my friends, and the things that I loved to do. I also found myself needing to call in absent to work because of the intense anxiety I was experiencing. This is when I had the feeling of hitting rock bottom.
With Alan’s help, we decided it was crucial to my treatment and recovery if I took a short leave of absence from work. That summer I took the leave, started on a very low dose of Prozac from my general practitioner, and spent those three months seeing Alan for intense therapy three times per week. It is hard to even write all this down because it was such a difficult time in my life. I remember feeling defeated, like I was not a good wife, employee, daughter, friend….any of the things that made me who I was. I honestly wasn’t sure I would be able to get myself back, but I knew something had to change and that somehow everything would get better.
I also remember thinking that I had to do this for my future family. My husband and I have always wanted to be parents, so I knew that I had to do this so that our children would never have to go through this with me. Even though I’ll always wish that we hadn’t had to go through OCD together, I thank God that OCD hit us before we started our family. I know we are very lucky.
Now, just about one year after I began seeking treatment with Alan, I know that I have put OCD behind me. It no longer controls my thoughts and actions every day, and it feels amazing. It has been an extremely long and challenging road, but I have come out stronger in the end. I cannot tell you that I never have obsessive thoughts come into my mind or that I never give in to a compulsion anymore, but I can tell you that I now have the tools to conquer this crippling disorder.
This summer, things just started to “click,” and every day since then has gotten better and better. I wake up excited for each new day, excited to go to work, and I am finally myself again. When obsessions and compulsions do come sneaking up on me sometimes, I have the confidence and skills to deal with them. Often times I’m even able to look at moments that used to cripple me and turn them into opportunities to further conquer my OCD!
I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support system that I am lucky enough to have around me. My husband has never left my side or let me forget what really matters in life. My hometown doctor gave my anxiety a name and helped me to understand that I had a treatable medical problem. Our parents have been with us every step of the way and have helped us in more ways than I can count. My family and friends have given me a safe place free of judgment or pressure to “just stop worrying.” And Alan, my therapist here in Michigan, absolutely helped me get my life back. I know that God led me to his office because He knew that Alan could teach me how to get myself out from the rock bottom that my OCD had brought me to. He is an incredible therapist, teacher, and person.
I have to say, one of the biggest things that really helped me conquer my OCD were the “Group Therapy” appointments that Alan organized. Being with others also struggling with OCD, others who truly understand what I’ve been going through, has been amazing. It’s incredible what groups like this and those at the Anxiety Resource Center can do.
Throughout my struggle I have always found great comfort in the stories of others with OCD. Knowing there are others out there who understand what I have been going through has helped me realize that I’m not alone. My hope is that my story can somehow be of help to you, as so many others’ stories have helped me. I want to tell you that you are not alone, you are strong, and you can do this! It may seem too big at times, but be brave, seek help, be persistent and disciplined through therapy, and know that you can beat this!
Overwhelmed…Embarrassed…Angry…Alone…Chaos…..Too much clutter around you? As a professional organizer and social worker, I have seen firsthand the struggle people have in living with and letting go of their possessions. In cases where a large amount of items are impacting their daily functioning, hoarding disorder may be suspected. Their homes are filled with items they have collected over period of time. Those items may have little value but can be mixed in with items of value such as photos, memorabilia, antiques, etc. They may have pathways through their homes that are difficult to move through. They may not be able to use their bathrooms, bedrooms or kitchen areas. There may be health and safety concerns (fire danger, lack of egress in emergency situations, etc.) They may have strained relationships with family and friends due to the hoarding behavior.
Working in hoarding situations as a professional organizer differs from typical chronic disorganization (chronic illness, ADD, etc.) or situational organizational challenges (death in the family, birth of a child, divorce, job loss, etc.). In hoarding situations, environmental conditions and safety are the biggest concerns for myself and my clients. Pests, rodents, mold, feces/urine, etc. have to be considered and personal protection equipment (PPE) must be worn in the cases that are extreme.
The person who is hoarding doesn’t usually see that there is a problem. Family, friends, neighbors, emergency responders and code enforcement officials tend to be the ones bringing these cases to light. Providing these clients with support, understanding and resources in hoarding disorder is my primary role as the professional organizer. An assessment of the situation is done in the home with the client and/or family members. A Plan of Action is developed. If the situation is more extreme, a team is used to complete the clean out work. In less extreme cases, individual organizers do the hands on work.
Since there is a lot of attachment to the things in the home, small sections at a time are worked on. The client is usually working side by side with the organizer to make decisions on the items. Items are sorted into categories such as Donate, Keep, Important, Throw away, Recycle, Give to Others and Go to Another Place in Home. This is considered a rough sort. The Keep items, etc. are labeled and put into storage such as a garage, off site storage, or another room in the home. The Important items are put in a safe location where the client can locate them easily.
Working with clients who have hoarding disorder can last for many months, even years. Counseling services with a mental health professional is required in conjunction with hands on work with an organizer. Many times the coordination between the organizer and therapist will help to support the client in dealing with the emotions that come to the surface during the process of decluttering. Slower and steady decluttering and organizing is the preferred method of organizing as opposed to the fast clean outs. Studies have shown that fast clean outs don’t usually lead to behavior changes but rather the hoarding of the spaces continues. Intervention with resources such as mental health professionals, professional organizers, interested family members and friends can make all the difference in whether success or failure occurs.
The key to successful intervention is in the approach taken when discussing the situation. Being respectful, non-confrontational, non-judgmental, supportive and factual tends to be the most successful. This can be difficult for family and friends who may have been dealing with the hoarding behavior for years and don’t understand the disorder. Education is key to understanding and dealing with this complicated disorder.
To learn more about hoarding disorder and the role of professional organizers, visit these websites: Institute for Challenging Disorganization, National Association of Professional Organizers, Michigan Chapter of NAPO, Children of Hoarders.
“Susie Marsh trained to become a Professional Organizer and started her own business, Susie’s Organization Solutions LLC, in 2007. She continues to expand her professional organizing business by working with clients in their homes, personal work spaces and assisting with moving needs/estates and time management/paper management. Susie also is a licensed social worker with 25+ years experience in the mental health system. Susie specializes in working with older adults and persons who struggle with chronic disorganization challenges.”
The lights were low, the band was playing, and people all around me were praying. My friends seemed to be experiencing God in powerful ways, but I sat in the pew, lost in confusion. I could not escape the mental torment that had become my reality. As I struggled through the endless twists and turns of delusional thinking, a friend of mine came and sat next to me. I shared my frustration with him: “I feel like I’m lost in a maze…a confusing maze of thoughts…and I cannot find the exit.” He responded in a reassuring voice: “Sometimes, Nathan, the only way out is up.”
From early on, my childhood had been characterized by strong, stable Christian values. However, when I graduated from high school and went off to the University of Michigan, I began to fundamentally question everything about my beliefs. I had an endless stream of doubts, and as my spiritual foundation began to erode, I also found myself grappling increasingly with irrational, paralyzing fear.
As the zeal to “find the answers” was eventually replaced by disillusionment and despair, my thinking patterns and behaviors became increasingly obsessive. Before climbing into bed, I would turn off the light. Then I would turn it back on. Then off again. For some reason, I thought that I had to turn the light off the “right” way, and every time I got it wrong, I had to do it again. Other behaviors were equally strange. At times, I found myself jumping slightly off the ground whenever I had an immoral thought. I also began to cough or tense up my body repetitively as feelings of anxiety increased. Negative mental associations dominated my thinking, making daily tasks nearly impossible.
In my own mind, I was constantly at the mercy of a tormenting labyrinth of contaminants. I went through bottle after bottle of hand soap. Every time I touched something that was “contaminated,” it meant another trip to the bathroom to wash my hands. During a summer internship in DC, my small townhouse bedroom became a chaotic mess as I desperately attempted to avoid “contamination” from various items. The floor was speckled with loose change, pieces of candy, and small bits of paper. I had to sit in the corner and strategize how to get across the room without touching anything that was potentially “harmful.”
In particularly dark moments of fear and psychological torment, I became completely paralyzed. Holed up in my room, I was chained in a mental prison that I could not escape. Perhaps the worst spell of paralysis took place on the first floor of the DC townhouse. Fear was closing in around me like a boa constrictor, and I could not move. I twitched and jerked in small furtive movements, but I could not seem to go anywhere. For perhaps hours, I stayed in one spot between the dining room and the living room, locked in a stronghold. First I was standing, then eventually sitting, and all the while, I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, but I could not scream. I wanted to cry out in anguish, but I could not cry. All was quiet on the outside, but my soul was being brutally and mercilessly tortured. I don’t remember how I finally escaped; I probably came near to collapsing from pure mental and physical exhaustion.
After years of psychological anguish, I finally gave up my emotionally-charged rebellion against God. I fell to my knees, surrendered, and said, “God, I just want to know You for who You are.” In His mercy, He began to minister to my spirit through the story of Peter walking on the water to go to Jesus, and this story became a cornerstone of my recovery.
In the story, Peter was stuck in a boat that was about to capsize in a terrible storm. Jesus, however, was walking on the water, and Peter realized that his best option was to attempt what Jesus was doing. He chose to step out on faith, and when he stayed focused on Christ, he soared above all physical limitations and achieved the impossible. This story became a very real part of my everyday experience. The waves of fear and confusion were constantly crashing around me, and I had been trying to cling onto the boat for dear life. But I began to take small steps of faith and slowly pushed the boundaries of what I thought was possible.
As God took me through the healing process, He began to elevate my thinking. The dark, irrational labyrinth that I had been winding through was relentless and unending, and the only way to escape it was to rise above it entirely. My intellect alone could not conquer it; I could not reason my way out of it. I had to transcend my finite rationale and allow God to take me higher in Him. When I ascended to a new plateau of peace in God, the enigmas that I previously contended with were left in the basement of virtual insignificance.
The manner in which I experience life today would not have been possible just a few years ago. The mental clarity, the emotional development, the spiritual consciousness — all of these were mere fantasy, but thanks to the grace of God, they have now become a part of my reality. Fear and anxiety continue to dissipate as I discover what it means to love and be loved by God. In many ways, my journey thus far has been about learning how to look up — to turn to God in the midst of madness — and I have experienced the profound peace that comes from exalting God above every quandary and complexity.
Nathan Cole is the author of Exiting the Maze. The book can be found on Amazon, in both print and Kindle formats. To contact the author, please visit www.ExitingTheMaze.com.
Ever thought of taking a yoga class but weren’t sure if it was something for you? You are not alone.
This is exactly how I felt about ten years go. I loved everything about the first yoga class I
went to and I was hooked. Since that first class, I’ve continued to develop my practice and with training through PrairieYoga, I became a certified yoga instructor.
I’m not suggesting that you will become a yoga teacher, I just want to encourage you to try yoga. I’d also like to share what I’ve learned along the way.
First, there are a lot of different types of yoga classes. I would have to say that a gentle class is a good place to start. Second, yoga is more than the poses, you learn how to calm the mind, deepen the breath, and learn how to ‘let go’. The benefits of practicing yoga are endless.
As put by the American Yoga Association, “Yoga helps you to access an inner strength
that allows you to face the sometimes-overwhelming fears, frustrations, and challenges of everyday life. A few yoga exercises practiced daily (especially if they are done just prior to meditation) help to regulate the breath and relax the body by gently releasing tension from the large muscle groups.”
Finally, I’ve also learned that yoga IS for every body. I’ve trained with Matthew Sanford, who teaches how to adapt the practice. Matthew taught me that the techniques of yoga apply no matter the physical condition or shape of the pose. Still thinking about that yoga class? Why not give it a ‘go’?
I will be teaching a gentle yoga class at the ARC. Come try a class with me on
the first Wednesday of each month from 7 to 8 p.m. Contact the ARC for additional
information and to sign up.
OCD is an anxiety disorder and an anxious temperament can make you more vulnerable to developing the condition. I’ve always been a worrier, and worrying – and the uncertainty that provokes it – contribute to my need for control. The more I can control, the calmer I feel.
I realize that always being anxious is an incomprehensible state of being for those of you who aren’t born worriers, and who only have sleepless nights when you really have something to worry about.
For those of us for whom worrying is like breathing, not worrying is equally incomprehensible.
My anxiety takes many different forms: from mulling over unpleasant incidents and worrying about a challenge to be faced, to imagining full-scale disaster and tragedy, often on the basis of very little.
I once found a lump in my left forearm while bathing; a definite lump, no figment of a hypochondriac’s imagination. By the time I’d finished my bath, I’d projected forward to a diagnosis of cancer and the amputation of my arm, I’d learnt to write again with my right hand and entered the Paralymics as a one-armed archer. All in the space of 10 minutes. A visit to the doctor revealed that it was a harmless cyst.
Likewise, my boyfriend and I, who live in separate flats, speak every night at 10pm. If he doesn’t pick up, or return my message within seconds, I don’t assume that he’s on his mobile, or lost track of time in the bath, I conclude that he’s dead from an ruptured aneurysm. In the two minutes between leaving my message and him calling me back, I’ve buried him, grieved for him and found a new partner.
And all the time I’m worrying, I’m experiencing the physical effects of anxiety, as well as the mental and emotional ones. Depending on the level of worry, this can include a churning stomach, racing heart or dizziness. It’s a draining way to live.
When I’m particularly anxious, I’m driven into a frenzy of ordering.
My boyfriend called late one evening to say that the electricity had gone off in his flat. My concern as to the implications for him – his freezer defrosting, the hassle of getting in an electrician, the cost of repairs etc – sent me spinning off around my own flat to check that everything was in its place. Ordering created an illusion of control in a situation where I was, in fact, more or less helpless. It was only when he texted a little later to say the power had come back on of its own accord, that I could let go of my OCD comfort blanket.
Someone once said to me ‘Worrying is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.’ My OCD compulsions are much the same.
Are you a worrier? If so, how do you manage your anxiety?
Helen Barbour is a writer based in North London. Her debut novel, The A to Z of Normal, is now available as an ebook and paperback. “Natural Born Worrier” is from Helen’s blog, The Reluctant Perfectionist: life as a writer with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Copyright © 2013. It has been reposted by permission of the author.
The ARC at 10
We seem to measure life in decades of years. Every ten years a milestone is set.
History is bracketed in decades: The Roaring Twenties, The Peace and Love 60’s, The Big Hair 80’s.
The ARC today crowns itself with its 10-year anniversary. One decade well spent. Its founders can look back at these years with pride—10 years of existing here on this little island offering a safe place for those injured in body and spirit where they can find help, acceptance, educations and kinship with others who totally understand and will listen unconditionally. Hopefully they will heal, even if only for each visit, each week, they can come to this place of calm, and take some away with them when they leave.
What ARC Means to Me
It starts when I open the old door and pass over the sill that is worn from the passage of others for many years. This wonderful old building that once was dedicated to saving buildings and people from the ravages of fire, is now a place for people who have emotional fires burning them. They can come to this building and know they are safe, and can find release and relief.
When that door shuts behind me, I can feel the quiet welcome. The space from floor to the high tin ceilings lets me breathe; there is room to breathe here and openness of sanctuary. I have often thought that I could sleep very well in this building, feeling calm and safe, as if it could even transform my sometimes troubling dreams to ones of peace and quiet for body and soul.
Some of the people I have met here have become valued friends, whose total understanding and acceptance is worth more than gold, priceless. We know we can call these friends if we are hurting, and we can call to plan some fun, too!
The social outings that I have taking part in have given me some of the best times in my recovery—a day where I feel like me, freed to be OK, free to be ME.
I am so very glad that the ARC exists in this space, and I am so very glad for all the time I spend here. For me, it is sanctuary. Thank you for this refuge.
Anxiety is a normal response to something dangerous or stressful.
It becomes a problem when it shows up at unexpected times and takes a particularly firm hold. When anxiety is in full swing, it feels awful. Awful enough that anticipation of the feeling is enough in itself to cause anxiety.
We already know that anxiety has nothing to do with strength, courage or character. It picks a target and it switches on.
When that target is a child or teen, it can be particularly distressing, causing problems with sleeping, eating and missed school from unexplained illnesses such as sick tummies or headaches.
One of the worst things about anxiety is the way it can happen without any identifiable cause. The physical feeling is familiar – that panicked feeling that comes when you miss a stair or as my daughter recently described, ‘that feeling you get when you’re almost asleep and you feel like you’re falling.’ (‘Yes, we’ve dealt with it in our home too. It’s under control now, so I can assure you this works.)
The good news is that anxiety in kids is very treatable and they are particularly responsive. I often think we don’t give them enough credit. They’re so open to possibility and very quick to make the right connections when they’re given the right information and support. As the adult in their life, you’re the perfect one to give it.
Anxiety in Kids and Teens: Turning it Around
Don’t talk them out of it.
As a parent, the temptation is to reassure your child with gentle comments in the way of, ‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ or ‘You’ll be fine’. This comes from the purest of intentions but it runs the risk of them feeling as though there’s something wrong with them. The truth is that when anxiety has a hold of them, they can no sooner stop worrying than fly to the moon. As much as they want to believe you, their brains just won’t let them.
What they need to hear is that you get it. Ask them what it feels like for them. They may or may not be able to articulate – and that’s okay. Then, ask if it’s ‘like that feeling you get when you miss a stair,’ (or ‘that feeling you get when you feel like you’re falling in your sleep’). Often, this in itself is such a relief because ‘someone gets it.’
- Anxiety is normal and everyone experiences anxiety at some time in their life –before an exam, when meeting new people, going for an interview or starting at a new school.
- Sometimes it happens for no reason at all. That’s also normal. It happens to lots of adults and lots of kids but there are things you can do to make it go away.
Explain why anxiety feels the way it does.
Out of everything, this is perhaps the most powerful intervention for anyone with anxiety. Anxiety causes the most problems when it seems to come on without any real trigger. There’s a reason for this, and understanding the reason is key to managing the anxiety.
Here is a child-friendly explanation. I’ve used it for a variety of ages, but nobody knows your child like you do so adjust it to suit.
‘Anxiety is something that lots of people get but it feels different for everyone. Adults get it too. It happens because there’s a part of your brain that thinks there’s something it needs to protect you from. The part of the brain is called the amygdala. It’s not very big and it’s shaped like an almond.
It switches on when it thinks you’re in danger, so really it’s like your own fierce warrior, there to protect you. It’s job is to get you ready to run away from the danger or fight it. People call this ‘fight or flight’.
If your amygdala thinks there’s trouble, it will immediately give your body what it needs to be strong, fast and powerful. It will flood your body with oxygen, hormones and adrenaline that your body can use as fuel to power your muscles to run away or fight. It does this without even thinking. This happens so quickly and so automatically. The amygdala doesn’t take time to check anything out. It’s a doer not a thinker – all action and not a lot of thought.
If there is something dangerous – a wild dog you need to run away from, a fall you need to steady yourself from – then the amygdala is brilliant. Sometimes though, the amygdala thinks there’s a threat and fuels you up even though there’s actually nothing dangerous there at all.
Have you ever made toast that has got a bit burnt and set off the fire alarm? The fire alarm can’t tell the difference between smoke from a fire and smoke from burnt toast – and it doesn’t care. All it wants to do is let you know so you can get out of there. The amygdala works the same way. It can’t tell the difference between something that might hurt you, like a wild dog, and something that won’t, like being at a new school. Sometimes the amygdala just switches on before you even know what it’s switching on for. It’s always working hard to protect you – even when you don’t need protecting. It’s a doer not a thinker, remember, and this is how it keeps you safe.
If you don’t need to run away or fight for your life, there’s nothing to burn all that fuel – the oxygen, hormones and adrenalin – that the amygdala has flooded you with. It builds up and that’s the reason you feel like you do when you have anxiety. It’s like if you just keep pouring petrol into a car and never take the car for a drive.
So when the amygdala senses a threat it floods your body with oxygen, adrenaline and hormones that your body can use to fuel its fight or flight. When this happens:
Your breathing changes from normal slow deep breaths to fast little breaths. Your body does this because your brain has told it to stop using up the oxygen for strong breaths and send it to the muscles to they can run or fight. When this happens you might feel puffed or a bit breathless. You also might feel the blood rush to your face and your face become warm.
If you don’t fight or flee, the oxygen builds up and the carbon dioxide drops. This can make you feel dizzy or a bit confused.
Your heart beats faster to get the oxygen around the body. Your heart can feel like it’s racing and you might feel sick.
Fuel gets sent to your arms (in case they need to fight) and your legs (in case they need to flee). Your arms and legs might tense up or your muscles might feel tight.
Your body cools itself down (by sweating) so it doesn’t overheat if it has to fight or flee. You might feel a bit sweaty.
Your digestive system – the part of the body that gets the nutrients from the food you eat – shuts down so that the fuel it was using to digest your food can be used by your arms and legs in case you have to fight or flee. (Don’t worry though – it won’t stay shut down for long.) You might feel like you have butterflies in your tummy. You might also feel sick, as though you’re going to vomit, and your mouth might feel a bit dry.
As you can see, there are very real reasons for your body feeling the way it does when you have anxiety. It’s all because your amygdala – that fierce warrior part of your brain – is trying to protect you by getting your body ready to fight or flee. Problem is – there’s nothing to fight or flee. Don’t worry though, there are things we can do about this.’
Explain how common anxiety is in adults.
About 1 in 8 kids have struggled with anxiety. So let them know that in their class, there’s a good chance that 3 or 4 other kids would know exactly what they’re going through because they’ve been through it before. Maybe they’re going through it right now.
Give it a name.
‘Now that you understand that your anxiety feelings come from the ‘heroic warrior’ part of your brain, let’s give it a name.’ Let your child pick the name and ask them what they think of when they picture it. This will help them to feel as though something else is the problem, not them. It also demystifies their anxiety. Rather than it being a nameless, faceless ‘thing’ that gets in their way, it’s something contained – with a name and a look.
Now get them into position.
‘The problem with anxiety is that [whatever their ‘heroic warrior’ is called – for the moment, let’s say, ‘Zep’] Zep is calling all the shots but we know that you’re really the boss. Zep actually thinks it’s protecting you, so what you need to do is let it know that you’ve got this and that it can relax. When you get those anxious feelings, that means Zep is taking over and getting ready to keep you safe. It doesn’t think about it at all – it just jumps in and goes for it. What you need to do is to let it know that you’re okay.
The most powerful thing you can do to make yourself the boss of your brain again is breathe. It sounds so simple – and it is. Part of the reason you feel as you do is because your breathing has gone from strong and slow and deep to quick and shallow. That type of breathing changes the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body. Once your breathing is under control, Zep will stop thinking he has to protect you and he’ll settle back down. Then, really quickly after that, you’ll stop feeling the way you do.’
Breathe deeply and slowly. Hold your breath just for a second between breathing in and breathing out. Make sure the breath is going right down into your belly – not just into your chest. You can tell because your belly will be moving. Do this about 5 to 10 times.
Practice before bed every day. Remember that Zep, the warrior part of your brain, has been protecting you for your entire life so it might take a little bit of practice to convince Zep to relax. But keep practicing and you’ll be really good at it in no time. You and that warrior part of your brain will be buddies – but with you in control. One way to practice is by putting a soft toy on your child’s belly when they lie down. If the toy is moving up and down, their breathing is perfect.
An abundance of scientific research has demonstrated the profound effects of mindfulness. MRI studies have shown that practicing mindfulness increases the density of grey matter in the brain, providing relief and protection from stress, anxiety and depression. See here for more information.
Mindfulness doesn’t have to be complicated. Essentially, it’s being aware of the present moment. My daughter does 10 minutes before bed.
Start by explaining that anxiety comes about because of worry about the future and what might happen. Sometimes these thoughts happen in the background – we don’t even know they’re there. Mindfulness helps you to have control over your brain so you can stop it from worrying about things it doesn’t need to. It trains your brain to stay in the here and now. The brain is like a muscle and the more you exercise it the stronger it gets.
It sounds easy enough but minds quite like to wander so staying in the moment can take some practice. Here’s the how:
- Close your eyes and notice your breathing. How does the air feel as you draw it inside you? Notice the sensation of the air, or your belly rising and falling. Notice your heart beating. If your mind starts to wander, come back to this.
- Now, what can you hear? What can you feel outside of you and inside your body? If your mind starts to wander, focus on your breathing again.
Remember that anxiety in kids is very treatable but it might take time.
Explain to your child that his or her very clever and very protective brain might need some convincing that just because it thinks there’s trouble coming, doesn’t mean there is. Keep practicing and they’ll get there.
“Anxiety in Kids: How to Turn it Around and Protect Them For Life” by Karen Young originally appeared on heysigmund.com on March 5, 2015. Used with permission. Karen is the found of Hey Sigmund–Where the science of psychology meets the art of being human. She has worked as a psychologist in private practice, in organisational settings, lectured and has extensive experience in the facilitation of personal growth groups. Her Honours degree in Psychology and Masters in Gestalt Therapy have come in handy at times.
“Going to” public places can be very difficult for those of us that have social anxiety but “going” in public places can be very difficult for those of us that have a specific kind of social anxiety called Paruresis (par-yoo-ree-sis). Also called “Shy Bladder Syndrome, Paruresis is a condition in which people “freeze up” when they attempt to use public restrooms.
Due to the embarrassment this disorder causes and due to a lack of awareness that there is help for it, it is not really known how many people suffer from Paruresis. “Shy Bladder” is more prevalent than one might think. It is thought that possibly 5 % of both men and women may have at least some degree of difficulty urinating in public restrooms.
The condition results from the brain automatically sending out an abnormal warning that danger is at hand when one attempts to use a public restroom. This warning is characterized by varying degrees of bodily responses including increased heartbeat, rapid, shallow breathing, fear, and a “locking up” of the muscles that enable a person to urinate at will. Repeated avoidance of the fear-producing stimulus, which is typical in people that don’t know what else to do to deal with the fear, sends feedback to the brain’s warning system that the danger is real. As a result, the fear is reinforced and the problem worsens.
The only way that Paruresis can be treated effectively is by using a process called Graded Exposure Therapy, sometimes with the help of anti-anxiety medication. In this type of psychotherapy, a hierarchy of tasks of increasing difficulty is established that the sufferer is asked to perform. The person must be willing to put him or herself in a fear-producing situation, feel the emotional distress, and do nothing to try to relieve it. As you can imagine, this is by no means an easy thing to do. It is against human nature to willingly make ourselves feel uncomfortable or fearful. However, if we can do it, there’s a good chance that we can put the problem behind us.
The Paruretic client that is willing to engage in this type of therapy might start off just by looking at the entrance to a public restroom, allowing himself to feel the fear that is evoked. In advanced cases, just looking at pictures of a bathroom might be enough to evoke the required distress response. Performing an exposure task such as this repeatedly over a period of time causes the brain to desensitize to the fear-producing stimulus and the person eventually feels less distressed. It’s the same way that children get over their fear of the dark – by gradually facing it. Because every individual responds somewhat differently, it is never known ahead of time how long the desensitization process will take. In some cases, the time required can be very long. However, with continued exposure, the person will be able to attempt more and more difficult tasks on his hierarchy, such as walking into the restroom momentarily, followed by standing in the restroom for longer periods of time, standing briefly near a urinal or stall, and so on. When the client’s anxiety decreases sufficiently, the bladder no longer locks up and the person is able to urinate at will.
As we all know, being unable to urinate for long periods of time (perhaps because a restroom is not available) can be very painful. Because of this, many people have to shorten trips away from home or avoid them all together, including important family events. The demands one’s his job can force someone with Paruresis to have to wait long periods of time before returning home to urinate, often causing severe pain. Other factors that must be considered is that many people intentionally dehydrate themselves before leaving home in order to avoid experiencing this kind of pain. Repeated dehydration that is done over a long period of time is a very serious condition that can, and will, lead to a host of other problems, both physiological and psychological.
The good news is that with the help of a therapist that is at least knowledgeable and preferably experienced in treating Paruresis, there is a good chance of overcoming the problem as long as one is willing to follow and stick to the therapeutic regimen that is required for success.
If you are interested in attending a support group for this problem, please contact Alan Carriero, LMSW at 616-940-9091 or firstname.lastname@example.org. A support group for Paruresis is an opportunity for people to informally meet others that truly know what it’s like to live with this disorder in an absolutely confidential setting. It is also an opportunity to share stories about what has helped and what has not and to ask a mental health professional questions about Shy Bladder that the group may not be able to answer itself.
If enough interest is expressed in starting a Paruresis support group, Mr. Carriero will contact you and arrangements will be made to meet at his office or elsewhere in Grand Rapids. The group will meet weekly and be “open-ended,” meaning that members can join or leave whenever they choose to do so. You don’t have to continue letting this problem interfere with your life!
Alan Carriero, LMSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Michigan who has done psychotherapy for OCD and the other Anxiety Disorders for more than 20 years. He himself experienced an extreme anxiety disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and beat it more than 35 years ago.
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