This blog will hopefully be helpful for both the sufferer and the non-suffering person to understand why don’t others understand anxiety?. Many years ago I stayed in an Airbnb. It was my first time staying in someone else’s house and I was keen to get on with the host. The lady I met asked why I was in the area and I mentioned that I was currently studying and undertaking a training course for BWRT. As soon as she found out I was a therapist I was whisked into the dining room and sat round the table talking ‘anxiety’. It turned out her teenage daughter suffered terribly and the mum was at a complete loss why.
The mum and daughter
She mentioned her daughter had everything she wanted; she lived in a nice house, big bedroom, all the luxuries she could want but was anxious. The mum was at her wits end as she wanted to help her daughter but simply had no idea why she was like she was, when from the outside, everything seemed perfect to her daughter.
The mum She was extremely outgoing and confident but I asked her what made her anxious. She replied ‘nothing’. So I asked her again, she again said ‘I can’t really think of anything’. I then insisted she told me something that made her anxious as we all have something and she mentioned ‘being in America and visiting the tops of high buildings – heights!’
I asked her how her daughter was when they were at the top of those building. She mentioned she was fine with heights. For the mum though, she had an anxiety that she believed was logical, so she had a reasoning for her feelings whilst at the top of the buildings. I’m up high, this is dangerous it is fine to feel like I do.
Logical or Illogical?
I went on to explain that the mum’s response wasn’t logical though, unless she was leaning dangerously out the window or the building was frail and could fall down, she had no reason to feel anxious. But the key here is she did. And those feelings were a response to her own psyche at that moment in time. Her feelings are her own and they will be triggered by any number of situations or thoughts, in this case her fear of heights triggered her anxiety.
Incorrect and out of date belief systems
As we grow through childhood we actively create rule after rule to keep ourselves safe. At some point in the mum’s life she picked up the rule that heights were to be avoided and her anxiety symptoms were a mechanism to keep her safe by trying to persuade her from going near them. Unfortunately some of these rules we live by are incorrect and can be extremely illogical which creates further anxiety; because we created them as a child we had no ability to challenge them if they were incorrect – as we simply didn’t know better at the time. But they are rules we live by to keep ourselves safe even if they are wrong! We end up with a conflict between our conscious and subconscious. The former wants to do something that it knows is safe but it’s overridden by the subconscious that has a rule against it saying it’s dangerous. Which can be seen here, the sightseeing mum consciously wants to go and see the great view from the top of the building, but her subconscious working from an out of date incorrect rule telling her to not go up.
When it believes something is dangerous it expels a variety of symptoms to keep you away from it. Heart racing, blushing, shakes, trembling, sweats, jelly legs etc.… Add you own to this list. At this point, hopefully it makes sense that everyone of us has a different set of rules that we created as we grew up.
Lack of empathy or a misunderstanding?
I remember many years ago I was attending a fear of spider’s event. Everyone in the room had a fear of spiders. When people were telling stories between themselves there was an extremely high amount of empathy flowing around the room, lots of ‘I know exactly how you feel’. In this instance, the people in this room all suffering arachnophobia could understand their fellow acquaintances. They had the same built in rule in their psyche and could easily relate.
But. If I had started to talk about flying it would have changed very quickly. Maybe out of the 20 or so people only a handful would be fearful of flying. At this point the empathy would start to fall and conversations like ‘I love flying its safe, I can’t understand why you would be scared, safest form of travel’. Someone who just a moment ago was so understanding about your spider phobia is now completed bewildered that you could fear flying!
The stubborn psyche
Herein lies the issue. It is very hard for your psyche to understand something that doesn’t exist within it. When you search your own mind and get a match you have a frame of reference – as above the people in with the spider phobia, whereas when someone hears about someone with a fear of flying and this is absent in their own mind, they fail to understand how you could possibly be scared of it.
Often it appears as a complete lack of sensitivity but the actual reality is that people don’t often possess the ability to sympathise in a way until the situation has been explained to them. The lady at the start of this post started to make sense of her daughter’s predicament once she used her feelings of anxiety at the top of the building and realised that is how she felt at that moment. And her daughter feels her own feelings in her moments.
This isn’t about a right or wrong. It’s understanding that everyone feels different things towards different things. Be that, positive or negative, we all get triggered. Understanding we all have different triggers that then trigger different emotional response allows us the ability to be compassionate and non-judgemental towards someone.
Your truth, their truth, both valid!
If someone feels the way they do, regardless of how illogical it may seem to you it is still true for that person. We live in a country where spiders don’t kill us. Yet around 1 in 5 people are scared of them. Illogical yes, but a truth nonetheless.
Whenever I am faced with trying to get someone to understand anxiety I ask for a fear they hold themselves, explain to them how it’s illogical but it belongs to them and it is their truth. This usually opens up their psyche enough to see how we are all affected in different ways to our own rule set.
However incorrect our rules may be!
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