Walking the dog this morning, a neighbour caught up with me and was talking about his wife’s new car. It’s all-electric and she was initially so delighted with it – but is now, he said, suffering with a bad attack of ‘range-anxiety’. As a therapist in a previous life I have collected quite a few ‘anxieties’ over the years but this was a new one for me (and for you too?); she is constantly checking the car’s electricity level to ensure she has enough power to make the journey she wants to make – and worries that she may run out. Given that we live on top of the highest hill in the county, if the car did run out half-way up it would be really difficult to tow it home. But how likely is that to happen?
Returning home, I reflected that the last time I bumped into this particular neighbour it was in a downpour of Biblical magnitude and we had talked about our shared eco-anxiety as we splodged through mud and skirted pond-sized puddles. Anxieties seem to be proliferating. I checked the most recent edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses (the American Psychiatric Association’s professional reference book on mental health and brain-related conditions published in 2022) and this now has three sections on Anxiety (Anxiety Disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders, and Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders) expanded from just one section in the previous edition.
So we are becoming more anxious. Anxiety has, at its core, a sense of losing control (If the car runs out of charge Jan might not be able to make it home, globally we are seemingly quite unable to stop climate change). Are you surprised? Did you feel in control when you posted your Christmas cards last December? If you have booked a holiday, do you feel in control of the arrangements? I used to go by train for work commitments – and now I opt to drive everywhere, however far away; it reduces the stress of uncertainty and I can go back to looking at weather forecasts instead of strike forecasts!
For good mental health we are told we need three core constructs: a belief that the world is safe, that other people are benign and that we ourselves are worthy. The first two of these are, I think, under threat for all of us. Climate change is making the world more dangerous, and it’s hard to feel that other people are benign when the child you take to A&E with terrible stomach pains is left screaming for several hours in a packed and despairing room. Emotionally, we may begin to retreat to a childhood hiding place – the metaphorical cupboard under the stairs where we shut down all systems and wait for the storm to pass and – in 2023 – pray that we don’t get sick – probably the biggest anxiety of all right now. And do we feel worthy when we can do so little to help ourselves and the children we support? It’s uphill work, I reckon.
However, when I reflect on all of this, I realise that I am also more attuned to the anxieties which trigger the behaviours that get our children excluded from school. As we work out ways to avoid using the rail network or postal system or NHS, we may also begin to think about how we can help our children to identify and access the systems and people that will reduce their anxieties and help them negotiate the trauma potholes that still pock their path – and join them on their journey.
Martha and Rachel