Reverse Anxiety: Part VIII, When the Protector Causes the Pain

Anxiety's Good intentions

As a therapist, I frequently work with adults who are struggling to cope with the ashes of childhood sexual, physical or emotional betrayal.  A lot of times, from a parent.  One of the more challenging aspects of this work (and, to be sure, I do love this work) is aiding in untwisting the knots parent's have tied in their children's lives through abuse.  In a unsettling corkscrew of nature, what was meant to protect (the parent), becomes the source of pain (the problem).

Helping victims reconcile with the way things "ought" to have been with how things "really" were is no pain-free, vanilla journey.  When the wires of parenting get crossed and the child becomes the parent,...the emotional husband/wife...the physical punching bag…or a witness to abuse, nature does a u-turn and starts tiresomely working backwards.  Possibly suspending parts of a person in time (read about trauma and neglect here).  

The betrayal that happens in the above parental abuse/neglect cases is similar to the betrayal experienced when anxiety becomes toxic.  The gift (anxiety) intended to protect us, backfires.  Like with an abusive parent, the protector becomes the wounder.  Here's the kicker and what adds salt to the exposed wound.  Like most abusers, anxiety's not all bad.  Something I hear all the time from the abused is that "my dad/uncle/aunt/boyfriend/brother may have abused me, but they were/are a good person.  Everyone likes them!"  The same is true with anxiety.  While there is obviously some good in anxiety (keeps us safe, keeps me from calling the wife names, etc.) when turned toxic, it can also be very bad (like the abusive parent).  Let's take a look at some of the ways anxiety steps outside of its originally intended role of protector:

The Great Distraction

I'm pretty sure I was the best dodgeball player to ever roam the halls of Northwest Elementary.  I blew people's’ clothes off with my brutally unsympathetic and freakishly accurate throwing arm.  I vividly remember the only competition that Northwest ever served up for me...Catfish McCarty.  I’ll never forget his calculated throws.  That dude had an arm as accurate as a digital calculator.  And he would wax and wane like broken windshield wipers always in a different pattern to avoid my missiles.  Yet, when I could figure out his pattern (and you bet I did) and learn to move my eyes to his skilled--but penetrable--rhythm, BAM!  He, nor his arm, stood a chance against the Mowery scud!

In the same vein, have you ever stepped back to examine the rhythm of a seriously anxiety provoking situation, time or place?  The fact that you're reading this tells me you probably have.  Does it seem to evade you with its dizzying windshield wiper patterns?  I bet it does.  Well, I have good news for you.  Like I finally did with Fish, you can get anxiety in your sights.  And unlike Fish’s Muhammad Ali style dance moves around my scuds, anxiety’s not that savvy.  I bet I know one of its sneaky patterns in your life already.   

Think of a time when you were overwhelmed by anxiety.  It's okay, you can do this with me…you won't get lost or stuck there (but if you still have issues even thinking/talking about certain anxious situations, call the number below for help).  Can you remember your thoughts?  What were they telling you?  Did you feel an overwhelming emotional charge to all those accusations, threats, put-downs your brain fired at you?  You probably did.  Ok, now think with me about what wasn’t happening during that frantic time (at the time we're usually not aware of this).  I can think of a few things that your mind was too busy wrestling with anxiety to think/do.  Below area couple things you were probably "not doing/thinking" about at that time:

→ The fight you had with your significant other/father/mother/friend/child

→ All the bills that’ve piled up  

→ the strain with/between your parents

→ the amount of work/homework you have

→ the lack of social skills you possess

→ your kid’s latest hole in the wall (okay, this one's a little personal for me)

→ the bore of your marriage

Anxiety On Trial

You see, while anxiety is definitely real and for sure alarming, it's not totally illusive or beyond our understanding like some of Fish's dodgeball dance moves (if you’re reading this Fish, I can still throw a scud…followed by a ton of downtime, of course).  Like Fish, anxiety has patterns.  And, the cool thing is that like I did with Fish, if we can pinpoint those patterns, we can nail them to the wall of change, with a scud.

I’ve already done some of the work for you. I’ve nailed down one of the most predictable anxiety patterns in my life (and probably yours).  Here it is, it took me years to stifle its power, but you can do it quickly:

Anytime something stressful is filling my thought life (a breakup, a death, too much work, homework, a toxic relationship) my mind begins burning calories construsting a neatly packaged worry/obsession/fixation montage that highjacks my brain space.  It distracts itself with fabricated anxiety and then, what’s more, it hyper-focuses in on however the anxiety is manifesting itself at the time.  For example, I used to suffer greatly from OCD/Tourette's type TICS where I would perpetually blink my eyes thousands of times a day having to be looking at certain objects that I thought were “acceptable.”  Or, I would grunt, sniff my nose, or clear my throat incessantly.  I was a counter/checker mess, constantly checking the door locks, repeatably making sure the burners were off, or counting all the tiles in a classroom.  

Back then my unexperienced mind never made the connection between that nightmarish checking/counting/repeating business with avoidance of other realities that were too tough for me to confront.  In character for me, I just thought I was weird (which I now know is true…there's no more doubts).  

But again, while anxiety can be illusive, it’s not smarter than you.  If I think back to some of the more pronounced anxiety situations where I couldn’t seem to get control over it, if I stop to figure out the pattern, I can dimly remember that I really did not like something going on in my life at that time.  For instance, I counted trees ferociously while driving in the car when my parents were arguing...I blinked like a typewriter when I thought someone disliked me…I counted uncontrollable when I was socially uncomfortable..I experienced panic attacks as a result of/and (as I now know) a distraction from some harsh part of reality I couldn’t accept at the time.  

So, the first way anxiety steps outside of its originally intended role of protector is through distraction.  Distraction has its place.  But its avoidance characteristics can do damage.  Distracted long enough and you will miss out on the benefits of learning that you can handle what's going on around you.  

(If you aren't convinced that distraction is a real part of anxiety, next time you're faced with your fears, distract your amygdala [the fear headquarters of the brain] by focusing on something other than what it is you are fearing at the time.  Notice the change in your body).


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