There’s an idea in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that anxiety is caused by misinterpreting a situation as unsafe. It’s that fight or flight response again, the adrenaline rush that means when we’re faced with a big bear looming out of the woods, we are pumped up ready to either fight it off or run away as fast as we can. Feeling emotionally unsafe has exactly the same impact on your body as feeling physically unsafe. So, as you walk into that party where you don’t know anyone, those anxious thoughts making your heart pound – ‘no-one’s going to talk to me’, ‘I’m going to make a fool of myself’, ‘they’re all going to think I’m a loser’ etc etc – are telling your body ‘Quick! Run away! Bear coming!’
Then we add in another step – safety behaviours. Things that we do to maintain our sense of security. Because if we walk into the party, and find that actually everyone’s pretty friendly, and interested in us, and want to get to know us, the thoughts become less noisy, our heartbeat slows, we relax and our body realises there’s no bear. But often, if we’re anxious, we don’t do that. We don’t go to the party. We stay at home (avoidance, our safety behaviour) and beat ourselves up about not going. And, because we don’t go, because we don’t prove to ourselves that actually we can do it, actually it would be ok…our anxiety remains and the bear wins.
What’s my point?
While this model (in fact, here it is right here)
is used to explain more persistent anxiety, such as the social anxiety example I gave you above, this idea can be used to explain our most mundane, day to day worries. Especially the ones that seem hard to shift.
And I was thinking about safety behaviours last night, as I looked at my two children, bathed and pyjama-d, waiting to go to bed. And what was I doing? I was hoovering. I didn’t particularly need to hoover, no more than I do every other moment of my rather grubby, muddy-booted, breadstick crumb-dropping days. But there I was, at 8pm, vacuuming specks off the rug. Whenever family life gets a bit stressful, for whatever reason, I often find myself arranging the cupboards, or decluttering the loft, or organising the toy box. It’s as if, as long as the toys are neatly put away, I’m on top of my day, my parenting, my life.
And there’s a nice little safety behaviour right there – control. Or, should I say, the myth of control. Control and worry are intrinsically linked. Most people who experience anxiety will find that they have a need for control. It gives us the impression that, as long as there is order in our world, everything will be ok. Compulsions are an example of this – as long as I press the light switch 20 times before I leave the room, my kids will stay safe.
But, in fact, the more we try to control, the more there is to worry about. Everything is ok only as long as your day runs smoothly and your plans are kept. But, then something goes awry – as, of course, it always does, especially when there are small children concerned. And what’s that? It’s a bear! And Instead of realising we can’t control everything, we try and control even more, and things don’t go to plan again, and suddenly there are bears lurking round every corner.
When my daughter was born, I realised that there wasn’t much point trying to control things. If she cried, tasks were left half finished and often not picked up again. And, while there were times I tried to restore some sort of order – trying to find a pattern to her hunger, establishing our own routine before bed – it was a pleasure to embrace the chaos. The control freak in me was silenced by the urgent needs of a newborn. And it was a relief.
But as the newborn got older, the control freak re-emerged. In a way, it’s necessary. It’s less socially acceptable to show up late with a toddler than it is with a newborn. But, actually, daily life is still chaos. More so, in fact. There’s nothing like a stubborn three year old to challenge your need for control.
And what that vicious flower tells us is that the more we try to keep order in the chaos, the more stressed out we’ll get. Instead, we need to hunt that bear, and figure out what’s threatening us. It’s never dust balls in the corner, or the toys being in disarray. Maybe it’s a hard day, an argument at work or a gripe with your partner. And instead of getting out the hoover, tonight I’m going to get some music on and dance round the crumb infested rug with my pyjama-d kids. Because we all know the best way to scare off a bear is to laugh in its face.