Category Archives: Anxiety

 

Takiwatanga
A Letter to My Daughter

 by Anon 

 

Dear Daughter,

Do you remember when you were seven and you had all those invisible friends? On the way to school, you told me about the fairies that helped you in Maths. Once we went to the forest and you made friends with a pack of invisible dogs, who came home with us and stayed for a week. In your bedroom, you had invisible fairy kingdoms. It was a huge transitional time, you were settling into a new school and I had recently separated from your dad. Your invisible friends nurtured you, when you were feeling vulnerable.

It was also an act of proactive resilience. Friendships didn’t come easily to you. When you were a toddler at soft play centres, you would sit with us, rather than play with other children. We used to walk over to the play area, holding your hand to encourage you. It was like persuading the moon to orbit Jupiter. Your gravitational pull was to watch from the sidelines.

Looking back, it was clear that you were camouflaging amongst adults. My mum always said you were, ‘born with an old soul’ - as if your childhood was one large waiting room for young adulthood.

At the time though, we were worried about you: sleepwalking, meltdowns, physical and emotional aggression and very low self-esteem.

Aged seven, you had your first CAMHS assessment. All those child-centred questions bombarded you but you answered everything with sweet, tactful acquiescence. Everything was fine, nothing was wrong - smiling, nodding like you were taking a test.

The CAMHS report came back a few weeks later, littered with typos and inaccuracies and a rather cryptic generalised anxiety diagnosis. Those professionals clearly hadn’t been asking the right questions or frankly even listening.

There was nothing generalised about your anxiety, it was specific. You were scared of the ocean; those big roaring, crashing waves made you cup your hands over your ears on holiday. Scooby Doo terrified you. Even when the baddies took their masks off, you never got the algorithm. You hated surprises or spontaneous trips, you needed advanced notice. The smell of cooked broccoli made you nauseous.

By the end of year six at Primary School, you’d been labelled with anxiety, social panic and depression and endured two separate programmes of CBT therapy. The school nurse concluded that you were ‘resilient’ because you had found five things to do in the playground by yourself when you had nobody to play with: hopscotch, running, skipping, talking to lunchtime staff and reading.

One of your CBT therapists was determined to cure your growing agoraphobia, and after one particularly warm February half-term spent wholly indoors, I too was also desperate for a solution.

The therapist used a desensitisation technique, where you were exposed to your fear gradually, over time. For some bizarre reason, she chose Tesco Extra as your ‘golden oracle’. I thought perhaps we’d start with the corner shop but she went straight for a supermarket averaging 70,000 square feet (which is, roughly the size of 25 tennis courts or a third as big as the area occupied by the aerial roots of The Great Banyan Tree!). Nothing like cutting straight to the chase!

There were five steps before achieving Tesco Extra ‘nirvana status’: Step 1 was standing outside Tesco; Step 2 was shopping with mum; Step 3 involved diverging from mum to find one item; Step 4 meant buying one item independently; Step 5 was an unchaperoned mini-grocery shop.

You were discharged before I realised you had hoodwinked her. You lied to her all along because you didn’t want to go into Tesco Extra after all but pretended you did to ‘make her go away.’ Intrigued and rather baffled, we chatted some more. It transpired that you felt she was disingenuous, saying “she just wanted my anxiety to go away.’

That sweet acquiescence had given way to being economical with the truth. However in this case, it was justifiable self-protection from a professional obsessed with ticking off a checklist.

By the summer term, you were threatening to hurt yourself and still not leaving the house. After numerous trips to the GP and long chats with the head teacher, who suggested contacting a private Educational Psychologist, we raided our savings.

At school you were a ‘model pupil’ - hardworking, polite, compliant and quiet. So there were no grounds to refer you to a school-based Educational Psychologist. I thought about road traffic accidents where the paramedics assess the scene, looking for the quiet, unresponsive ones. We needed help - and quickly.

I don’t believe in fairy tales but the day Rachel, the Educational Psychologist came into our lives, our lives changed forever.

We often talk about ‘life before Rachel,’ and ‘life after Rachel’ in hushed, mythical terms. She spent a whole afternoon with us, promising to ‘leave no stone unturned.’ It was liked being interviewed by Oprah. We were assessed separately.

I remember sitting in the garden answering questions about my childhood, parents, pregnancy, childbirth, mental health, with your childhood under intense scrutiny - but always in a gentle, non-judgemental way.

The experience was incredibly cathartic (like a Nicholas Sparks novel, where the hitherto unfathomable plot suddenly unfurls to make complete sense). All those years of mental health professional checklists, fruitless CBT sessions and agoraphobia, tinged with meltdowns were finally going to make sense. You said afterwards that you immediately felt comfortable with Rachel, that you let your mask down and spoke freely for the first time. You had never said that before.

Three weeks later, we received a report with no typos or inaccuracies. It simply stated that all your quirks, and social and emotional regulation difficulties were part and parcel of Asperger’s. But it was said with the grace of Oprah, complimenting you on your hyperlexic love of writing and reading and mature outlook. It didn’t feel like a death sentence, more a holistic, contextual report with a new, neurological explanation.

A year on from your diagnosis, autism lives amongst us. But it was here from the beginning, just hidden, mistaken for something else.

It’s common for girls to be diagnosed with eating disorders or other mental health conditions before discovering autism. According to the National Autistic Society (NAS), only a fifth of girls with autism in the UK were diagnosed by the age of 11, compared to half of boys. Many women remain undiagnosed until later on in adulthood. This is partly due to an inbuilt diagnostic bias towards a male presentation of autism, often overlooking the subtle cues of female masking, where autistic traits can be hidden in daily life.

We’ve come a long way. You have an ‘autistic-radar’ for other autistic children and teenagers, like some invisible wavelength. But you always speak with empathy and kindness: ‘they struggle, like I do.’

In some ways, the recent lockdown wasn’t a huge challenge for you. Remote online learning suited you; you learned at your own pace, without the annoying disruption of other children in the classroom. In addition to school work, you read over thirty novels and wrote various short stories, novellas and have now started a novel.

The interesting part has been your burgeoning political awareness. The Black Lives Matter movement has galvanised your inner sense of injustice and has led you to challenge classmates who posted, ‘all lives matter,’ comments. I am really proud of you for the way you handled this; asking them about why they thought this, and discussing it with them before you decided whether you could remain friends. For you, this really is a black and white affair and you stand against all racists. As you are also questioning your sexuality, you will not tolerate homophobia in any form.

Maybe all those years of feeling separate - sitting on the sidelines at the soft play centre; the lonely hopscotch in the playground; the invisible friends - have culminated in a recognition and understanding of feeling different. And with that, comes a desire to fight to protect others; those who are ridiculed or attacked for their skin colour or sexuality.

I wonder if you will lead protests on the street or write powerful polemics, denouncing prejudice and protecting civil rights.

The Maori refer to autism as “takiwatanga,” meaning in his/her own time and space. What a beautiful, sensitive concept. May you always remain in your own time and space.

 

Love Mum always xxxxx

 

 

 ♥   May you always be free from professional checklists;

 ♥   May you always be seen as someone with autism, not just autistic;

 ♥   May you still find invisible friends, if you need them;

 ♥   May you always follow your own gravitational pull;

 ♥   May you only enter Tesco Extra, if you want to.

 


 

Recommended further reading:

  1. How to Be Autistic by Charlotte Amelia Poe.
  2. Can You See Me? by Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott.

 

Language & Mental Health


 

How Teenspeak Can Shut Down Conversations about Mental Health

 By Alice Gamble 

 

As an 18 year old, two of the most common phrases I hear in response to expressing something about your mental health are “same” and “mood”.

For example:

 

Teen A: “I feel so stressed”;

Teen B: “Same.”

or

Teen A: “I feel rubbish”;

Teen B: “Mood.”

 

These two words have become quick and simple ways for young people to respond to their friends’ thoughts and feelings - and, to many, these words may seem like innocent slang used by 'Generation Z', much like “lol”.

Unfortunately, from my own experience as an anxiety sufferer, I know that these two short words can have a negative impact on your mental health. They are classic conversation stoppers; it can be pretty hard to expand on something when a few sentences worth of conversation have been summed up in one word!

 

When you’re struggling with your mental health it’s not just normal stress

 

In a fast-paced, modern world we have all experienced periods of uncertainty or worry caused by external factors such as work or relationships. However, these periods usually come to an end or arise as the external factor comes and goes; this is known as stress.

Advertisement

Online Therapy

Book an Appointment with a Purple House Psychologist today!

Slider

Mental health problems (in my case Anxiety) are a bit different. Mental health problems can persist whether or not the cause is clear; a clear cause could be a traumatic life event, but mental health difficulties can also be caused by an accumulation of smaller less noticeable events.

 

The best analogy I have found for what happens with unclear causes is a bucket of water :

Stress Bucket - The Purple House Clinic

For an anxiety sufferer, the water is your stress levels - and as stressors are added to the bucket, it will fill up until it overflows; the peak of anxiety coming out of the blue with no apparent trigger. The tap at the bottom represents the effect verbal interactions can have on stress levels.

This is where “stress” is now something more. Whilst stress and anxiety are similar, the words are mixed around so much that I feel they have lost their distinction. And I fell into this trap too.

 

Prior to my GCSE exams at school, saying to my friends, “oh I’m so stressed” - when in reality (unbeknownst to me at the time), it was more than just normal stress. I was suffering from a longer term problem with anxiety.

 

Most of my friends could distinguish that GCSEs were not the end of the world; that nerves are normal. But they could walk into the exam hall and out (maybe with some tears) and carry on.

 

I, on the other hand, saw my GCSEs as the deciding factor of my future (partly due to biased thinking patterns where I negatively predict the future, or see things in black and white terms).

 

I had panic attacks - sometimes even before I had even entered the exam room. I would often sit in the exam in a state of distress, my mind flicking back and forth between positive and negative thinking -  both during and after the exam.

 

Then when the exams were finished, something else would trigger all these feelings again - results day, sixth form and so on. The feelings remained even as the factors came and went, and sometimes I just had the feelings even when I could not work out why.

 

We need to carefully listen, and carefully respond, to our friends

 

Much like the lack of distinction between stress and anxiety, ”same” and “mood” easily diminish someone’s mental health problems i.e. if we do not carefully listen to the conversation, notice our friends behaviour or mood.

 

How easily these words can halt a conversation in which someone may have been crying for help, or finally having the courage to speak to their friends about what is going on:

Mood - The Purple House Clinic Blog

Without realising, and unintentionally, (B) could have halted the conversation where (A) was going to ask for help or share their problems.

 

And it is not to say that (B) cannot be feeling the same as (A). In fact when mental health problems are discussed openly it is easy to find that many are suffering similarly, and so new lines of support are potentially opened.

 

But the words used (if we’re not careful) can diminish someone else’s feelings or halt the conversation. There are better ways to acknowledge if you are feeling the same, perhaps saying:

 

“I think I understand what you’re going through...”

or

“I've been feeling the same lately as well…”,

 

These more open-ended sentences allow the conversation to continue, and show support and willingness to connect.

 

 

My friends helped me to talk about my mental health

 

When I first realised I had anxiety, I was at a loss of words to describe my feelings around exams; “stressed” worked well and so I continue to use this even though I know it’s something more. But because I have had open conversations with my friends about my ongoing difficulties with anxiety, they know that closer to exams “stressed” for me is not just stressed”.

 

These conversations only happened because they could continue; my friends did not say “same” after my first sentence, they listened and at the end of the conversation, a few actually said ‘I think I know how you are feeling’. 

 

It turned out they were actually feeling the “same” but, by not just saying that one isolated word, I felt my struggles were understood and mutual support was established.

 

What a lot of us need when we’re struggling is simply this - for the conversation not to be halted.

 

Keep open, keep talking!

 

 


Other relevant Purple House Blogs: Our Family In Lockdown (Guest Blog), The Secret to Harmonious Relationships During Lockdown

The Secret to Harmonious Relationships During Lockdown

There's no PLACE like home

Lockdown, by nature of its social and economic implications, is putting unprecedented pressure on relationships of all kinds - personal and professional.

There are families who are used to spending hours apart each day, suddenly thrown into being with each other 24/7. And conversely, work colleagues, extended family and friends are now distanced, connected to us only through electronic devices. 

Whilst existing in all of these different relationships, each and every one of us is experiencing our own additional stress, anxiety and trauma. This might include worries about keeping ourselves and family members safe from the virus, how to get food, stress about paying bills, the trauma of losing a job or keeping a business afloat, trying to get to grips with homeschooling and meeting your kids needs, worries about how to access healthcare, being lonely/disconnected from loved ones, or perhaps even suffering from losing a loved one to coronavirus. 

Every time we interact with someone else right now, we’re connecting with them in the midst of our own individual experiences…and theirs. Though this creates a great opportunity for meaningful connection, it also poses a great threat from ‘misconnection’.

Get it right, and you and your family member or work colleague feel great - you both feel understood, cared-for and secure. Get it wrong, and both parties are left feeling bad - perhaps feeling rejected, invalidated, or neglected - and in no better position to cope with their current trials. At this unprecedented time, how you conduct yourself, and how you are perceived is being tested as never before.

So how can we get it right?  To help with this, I’m drawing on a well-known therapeutic approach from the psychology world: PLACE. This memorable acronym stands for: Playfulness, Love, Acceptance, Curiosity, and last (but certainly not least), Empathy.

Developed by the wonderful American Psychologist, Dan Hughes, PLACE is most closely associated with therapeutic relationship work with adopted and looked after children. However, many of us Psychologists see the benefits of extending this philosophy to life in general - to all relationships - whether parent-child, adult-adult, personal or professional. Adopting PLACE can be life transforming. So please, accept this nugget of wisdom as my gift to you during this most testing of times (all accolades to Dan of course, for I am just a messenger!):

 

PLACE:

Playfulness. Find things to enjoy within your relationships, something fun and light-hearted. When times are tough, you need this more than ever to keep your relationships going. Have some silly fun in the garden with the children; have a giggle over funny YouTube clips (other online video-sharing platforms are available!) with your friends over a virtual coffee morning, or share some jokes with colleagues. Allow fun to blossom within your relationships, and within your own daily routine.

 

Love. Find something to love (or at least like!) from all the people in your life. Yes, someone might be causing you headaches, heartaches or stress (and it may feel like you’re getting little back). But take a step back. You may have fallen into the well-worn trap of dwelling on negatives. Your relationships will have been forged around someone’s principal characteristics. As time passes, relationships may struggle as one party (or both) tries to hone the edges of the other. The insignificant edges. These weren’t relevant to your love or friendship in the beginning - and neither should they be now. Especially now. 

So go ‘back to basics’, and rediscover the source of your love. Appreciate them. Dwell on the positives. Moreover, let them know! Love begets love...and you know the next bit.... you've got to love yourself too! Nobody is more critical of you, than you. So at this time, give yourself a break - notice your positives, notice what you're giving, how hard you're trying, and who you are. Look at yourself through loving eyes.

 

Acceptance. Accept where people are at with whatever they are thinking, feeling or experiencing right now. It might be ugly, it might be depressing, it might increase your own anxiety. But it’s their experience and it’s important. Don’t judge it, don’t invalidate it and don’t minimise it. Show you get it, and show it’s okay to feel the way they do. Self-care alert: you don't get out of this one lightly either-  show acceptance of your own internal experience too. Validate yourself and accept that whatever you’re feeling right now is okay.​

 

Curiosity. Don’t assume you know what your children, siblings, parents, friends, colleagues, neighbours are thinking and feeling. Even if you notice they are struggling, don't assume you know what the reason is, or assume their journey right now is the same as yours. Ask them how they are doing, follow the threads of their communication to piece together the picture of what it's like for them - their trials, their stresses and their positives. Similarly, don't forget to share your own experience….’warts and all’. Remember, a bit of vulnerability is what helps us connect as humans.

 

Empathy. (Not sympathy!). Sympathy is about looking in on someone's experience and feeling sorry for them. Empathy is different. Empathy is about standing in someone else's shoes (metaphorically!), and allowing yourself to feel what they must be feeling...and then showing them that you get that experience, and that you really, truly, deeply care about it. Empathy is a game changer - it's the lifeblood of maintaining healthy minds and healthy relationships. Show empathy to someone today and you'll see the power of it unfold before your eyes. Show it to yourself, and you're really on a winning streak.

 

Share the gift of PLACE. There’s literally no time like the present!

 


 

The Purple House Clinic will remain open during national lockdown & regional restrictions.