It is like static, playing in the background all the time!” This is how 17-year-old Sanvi described anxiety to me. It had started as a “whisper” but now the “static” had mutated into a “banshee”, screeching at her that COVID-19 would kill her elderly grandmother, that her father would lose his job and they would be thrown out of their house and then she would not be able to go to college!
I know we all might roll our eyes at Sanvi’s catastrophisation, but we are all entertaining some form of anxiety “static” in our lives. What if we were to put anxiety in a petri-dish to see what makes it thrive or Ripen (acronym)?
Real: The thing about anxiety is that it deceives us into believing that what it is saying or screaming at us is real — that we will lose our job, our family members will get COVID-19, and something awful is going to happen for sure. It speaks with such conviction, using our thoughts and our brain to work against us until, unwittingly, we are recruited as its voice.
Internalise: Anxiety also tricks us into believing that there is something wrong with us — that we are not smart enough, not worthy enough or maybe just not trying hard enough. When actually we need to turn the lens on the society which propagates the anxiety rampantly by creating a pressure on us to act, look, perform in a particular way.
Personal: When we have located the problem within ourselves, then obviously everything that is happening out in the world, we end up taking personally. “My friends do not call me because they think I am boring”, “I am ugly, so nobody will find me attractive!”
Emotional: Anxiety tricks us into believing that what it is telling us is the truth, and it is our fault, therefore, churning us in loops of doom and panic.
Nag: Another trick anxiety plays on us is continuously nagging us, as if on a song loop — “What if you get COVID?” “If only you had saved up enough money!” — creating what Sanvi called a static. Before we know, we are speaking its language and believing its every word. After some co-research with the young people I work with, these are the questions we need to ask ourselves to loosen the grip of anxiety in our life:
What will you name it?
Though we have been made to believe that emotions are intrinsic, universal, wired deeply in our brain, the latest research indicates that the way we experience emotions is largely dependent on our sociocultural context*. Sanvi had been told from an early age that she was an anxious child and she had internalised that as a truth about herself and let it “ripen.” However, when we started deconstructing this anxiety, she was able to separate herself from it and see how it had started taking over her identity and life. We unpacked years of messages she had internalised, “I will mess things up”, or “I am only as good as the marks I get”. Once she understood the workings of static, she could see the damage it had caused her over the years. If you have been made to believe that you are an “anxious person”, maybe these questions might help you unspool its hold on your life:
What name would you give it? One person called it “noise”, while another called it “jitters.” It might be a better idea to use a noun rather than a verb or an adjective.
What does it try to convince you of or deceive you into believing about yourself?
If you were to write a break-up letter to it, what would you say for it to know that you mean business?
What steps can you take?
Sanvi started standing up to the anxiety by small acts of resistance. She became alert to its voice and every time it started berating her, she told me, “I look it in the eye and request it to leave me alone” and get up and start doing something active “rather than listening to her rant on a loop.” Most importantly, she stopped believing that she was an anxious person.
What are the early signs that it is creeping in and starting its rant? Rather than call it anxiety, just name the sensation — “tightness”, “heaviness”, “twist in the gut” and “numbness”.
ABC – be Alert to its presence, Breathe out (imagine you are a dragon) and Change the channel before it starts its loop (a trick taught to me by a child I worked with). Go and do something that calms you down — a short walk, listening to your calming playlist, baking, watering the plants, etc.
A young person told me that what brought her a sense of peace was to decide that, “I would focus on my life and do what gives me joy rather than fret about how people are getting ahead of me and building their resume.”
What brings you a sense of bliss and awe?
Sanvi found that when she focussed on something outside herself, it would get rid of the static. She started teaching her domestic staff’s children. In fact, she went one step ahead and even volunteered to do online classes on spoken English in their school. She shared with me that the “static” was still there, but she just told it to stand in the corner (like a typical teacher) while she did her job which gave her the “zing.” As she shared with me, “When I am with the kids, I laugh so much that there is not much time for static to trouble me.”
What is the one thing that gives you a “zing?”
What brings you a sense of awe or bliss? When is the last time you found time for it?
Like Sanvi, how can you let it reach out to others and contribute in some way?
Who is part of your tribe?
Who are the people who mean a lot to you — your family, friends, pets, characters from books/movies, favourite writers who have been your companions and who give you a sense of safety?
How did they contribute to your life?
Who are the people who know what really matters to you?
How would they (including your dog) describe your “wonderfulnesses”?**
Now the thing is that there is no way of controlling the way things play out. COVID-19 might visit Sanvi’s family, her father might face financial losses, and she might struggle to finish college. But keeping the two scenarios in mind — letting anxiety rule her life or not letting it push her around — which one do you think will help her navigate her life forward? So are you ready to send it to the proverbial corner and reclaim your life?
*For more information, read Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book How Emotions Are Made or watch her TED talk
** Coined by narrative therapist, David Epston
(Dr Shelja Sen is a narrative therapist, co-founder Children First, writer, and, in this column, she curates the know-how of the children and young people she works with.)
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