Thursday, 14 February 2019

Battling with anxiety and discussing children's mental health - Huge, sprawling, complex and nothing to do with snowflakes. A ReadItTorial

This week's ReadItTorial is probably a bit of an ironic thing to post on Valentine's Day, but revisits a topic I've touched on before, and something that I've tried to write about in children's picture book texts more than a few times.

With our own experiences as parents of a naturally anxious child we've found time and time again that this is something that will touch most kids' lives at one point or another.

The problem is that not everyone 'grows out of it' - and I'm not even sure if it's something that can easily be shrugged off. I know this, and speak from bitter experience.

Anxiety is - quite frankly, and excuse my language - absolutely shitty. It manifests itself on a daily basis, sometimes in innocuous (sometimes even laughable) ways, but quite often in ways that will prevent you from achieving things you dearly want to do.

I recently went along to the fantastic "Sketchbook Social" event held at The Story Museum in Oxford. Whenever I go to any events, even something that's really informal and pretty low key, I have to practically beg my inner voice to just STFU, stop overthinking things, and almost enter some sort of weird 'autopilot' mode in order to be able to sum up enough courage to attend. I imagine that most folk check out the time and place an event is going to take place at. Maybe even set a calendar reminder. Then when the time comes they just leave the house, make their way to the place and take part in whatever it is.

For me, it's like a one-sided conversation that takes place entirely in my fizzing brain and for a lot of anxiety suffers it's like we're trying to pre-plan and predict every facet of what might happen in the hours to come.

It's ridiculous really. Every single time I've actually made it to any event I always meet really nice folk, all with a common interest (usually creative but we'll come back to that) who love to talk or better still, get involved in drawing, cooking, painting or other awesome pursuits.

Anxiety is a fickle beast. The whole overthinking thing (which our poor daughter seems to have inherited from us both, though more from me, I fear) and this busines of our brains trying to map out every eventuality just makes no discernible sense at all.

It can't be shut off though as it tries to predict the sort of people you will meet. It may also try to offer exit strategies, get-out clauses, may hold you up while it engages in constructing elaborate excuses for non-attendance. If you don't give it an audience it then turns to sneakier methods of subverting you. You'll sweat or shake, absolutely convinced that your body is turning against you. Your limbs will feel stiff, your brain goes from racing like a high-end sports car to trundling along at a snail's pace once you get under way, fighting that damned inner voice as you go (and trust me on this, it is a fight).

I have various means and methods that I try to use in order to combat anxiety and these are the ones I've also tried to share with our daughter as she suffers in similar ways (even now, even if she's going somewhere with us or if she's about to sit down to dinner, she needs to be fed as much detail about what's coming up as possible and we've had screaming fits on the doorstep if we've stubbornly tried to hide a day-out destination from her, or have refused to reveal what we're about to eat).

For me, the most common method is to try and 'mask' it. Adopt a persona that does not seem naturally anxious at first or second glance. Perhaps try and present some sort of normality. Again though my sneaky brain looks for elaborate ways to subvert this and I'll often say the most inane and stupid things simply because I'm sitting there trying to cope with a situation where the absolute concentration required for maintaining a mask is being chipped away at by a screaming inner voice demanding attention.

I know, right. People are probably reading this and thinking "Dear boy, you are quite mad". Trust me, I'm not mad, but I'm damned mad about this.

So back to a typical evening out and of course once the event is finished, your brain once again starts up in supercar race mode, raking over absolutely everything that's happened during those couple of hours or so, a mental post-mortem, kicking you in the arse to remind you of stupid things you might have said or done, or mapping out what your brain or imagination feels folk who were 'unfortunate' enough to encounter you during the event would be going away and saying about you. Even putting forward the notion that you had no business being there, and were actually butting in.

How absolutely *&!%£% rubbish is that?

It has been interesting reading some of Matt Haig's tweets and posts recently about anxiety too, highlighting just how misunderstood - if understood at all - the whole thing really is, not just by folk who don't suffer from it, but even from folk who do.

In children, I truly believe it's becoming more and more commonplace because kids are under colossal amounts of pressure that we really didn't have ourselves as kids (certainly not in my generation at least).

There's immense pressure at school to perform well, there's immense pressure from some parents for kids to 'do their best' when really the parents are mapping out their child's near-future, perhaps with the goal of University in mind, or securing a good job, being mentally and physically well, being happy. Imagine either consciously or subconsciously being on the receiving end of a barrage of expectations from all directions when really all you want to do is sit in a pile of Lego and build stuff, or draw unicorns riding clouds, or play with your friends, or a zillion other things kids should be doing other than studying, doing homework or being force-fed reading materials they really have utterly no interest in.

Add social media and the internet into the mix later on, and the heightened sense of a need to 'belong' to a particular clique, mindset or set of friend-driven ideals - and of course the further erosion of childhood as kids are put under intense pressure to grow up as soon as they hit their teens (and have all the physical and hormonal changes to pile onto their teetering set of anxieties).

Mental health is a huge, huge topic to try and tackle in the space of a blog post but for me, anxiety is absolutely not something to dismiss lightly. Sometimes the very processes of the modern world seem almost conspiratory towards this stupid imagined ideal that we can merely 'toughen up, grow up, deal with the adult world' but it's not merely as simple as that - and I'm sure I'm not the only one who goes through this sort of stuff every time they see something they really want to be involved in, right?