In Finding Hope in the Age of Anxiety Dr Claire Hayes offers hope to people who struggle with anxiety based on over 30 years of experience helping people of all ages understand and cope with anxiety. In this new book Dr Claire Hayes describes how we can take our power back when it becomes all-consuming and even paralysing. Check out this exclusive extract below.
Chapter 3 Extract: Let’s Take Our Power Back: ‘The Elephant and the Mouse’ Story
Feel the fear and do it anyway. Susan Jeffers (1938–2012)
In the early 1990s, I worked with a wonderful child who had a very unusual fear. I don’t want to be specific about what it actually was, but let’s call him Adam and say that he was afraid of mats. At the time I met Adam, he was a patient in hospital and crippled by his fear. I was a newly qualified clinical psychologist and was asked to help him. It was very difficult for the many adults who looked after him to witness his extreme distress, especially when they needed him to walk into a room which had mats. The situation was quickly getting worse and something needed to change. I approached him and asked him if he would go as close as he could to a large mat in the hospital hall. He was willing to do this and sat with me, at a safe distance from the mat, while making it very clear that he was determined not to take even one step closer.
As we sat and talked about the difficulties his fear was causing him every day, I realised that Adam considered himself to be stupid and assumed that everyone else did too. He knew logically that there was absolutely no need for him to feel afraid. He knew that he had successfully faced his fear by walking into rooms that had mats and even walking on mats. He knew that he would do so again, partly because he had to and partly because he knew he would be forced to. He knew that his fear was causing great distress to his parents and the nursing staff in the hospital and he blamed himself for this. While he really did want to tackle his fear, he told me that he would do it when he did not feel so frightened.
Adam was a master teacher and I was a willing pupil. As we sat there, I learned what it was like for him to experience severe anxiety on a regular basis. It affected his feelings, thoughts and actions. Adam felt awful. He felt physically sick, his heart would beat fast and his legs would get very shaky. Some of his thoughts were harsh: ‘I’m stupid’, ‘I’m pathetic’, ‘I’m such a baby’ and ‘I’m letting everyone down.’ Some were hopeless: ‘I can’t do it’ and ‘I’m not able to.’ Some were very definite: ‘I just don’t want to.’ Adam’s behaviour followed a very clear pattern. He dug his heels in and was determined to avoid doing the thing that he was afraid of. If he was successful in avoiding it, he immediately felt better. His sense of relief did not last long as he almost immediately began to worry about the next time he had to walk past a mat and he became anxious as a result. It seemed that there was nothing anyone could say to him that would make him feel better. As I got to know and admire Adam, it became very clear that he believed two things. He believed that he was not able to face his fears and he believed that he was stupid to experience anxiety in the first place.
As Adam and I sat there, I made up the story of ‘The Elephant and the Mouse’ to show him why it is not stupid to feel anxious. It describes how an elephant first learned to be afraid of a mouse, handed his power over to it and then successfully took it back. Understanding it helped Adam to courageously and deliberately take his power back from anxiety. In the years since then, I have shared this story with hundreds, if not thousands, of people who were doing their very best to avoid doing whatever triggered them to feel anxious. Once they understood how their avoidance was actually making things worse and that waiting until they felt brave might mean waiting for ever, they too courageously took their power back.
‘The Elephant and the Mouse’ Story
This is a story about an elephant and a mouse long before elephants had learned that they were afraid of mice. They had never heard of each other, never seen each other and they did not know that elephants were afraid of mice. They happened to go on a walk into the jungle one day and met in the centre.
Who would you expect to run away first, the elephant or the mouse? You might suggest the mouse because he is so much smaller than the elephant. Let’s suppose that the mouse gets such a shock when he sees the elephant that he freezes and the elephant actually runs away first. The following day, the elephant and the mouse again go for a walk in the jungle. Who would you expect to run away first this time?
If you said ‘the elephant’, I agree with you. I think the elephant would run first as he has now learned that he is afraid of the mouse. The mouse might be ready to run, but as he notices the elephant running, he thinks, ‘Ha! Look at that huge creature running away from me! He is scared of me!’ The elephant very quickly loses power and the mouse gains it.
On day three, the elephant decides to go back into the jungle once more. This time, as he walks, he is thinking that there is a very scary creature in the jungle. He looks all around as he walks and feels very frightened. His heart rate speeds up – adrenaline is preparing his body to fight or to run. He misinterprets this and thinks that the sick feeling in his stomach, his heart pounding and his sweat are all signs that there is something terribly wrong. He decides not to continue and retreats. On day four, the elephant does what he did the day before. He now also thinks that he is stupid, weak and ridiculous. If we think scary thoughts, we will feel scared. If we think harsh, persecutory thoughts we will feel persecuted.
The poor elephant starts to feel so terrible that he decides to retreat when he is a third of the way into the jungle. On day five, the elephant is at the edge of the jungle telling himself that he is stupid, he is afraid of the mouse, he is letting all the other elephants down and he is never, ever going to go back into the jungle again.
In the meantime, what is happening to the mouse? He has taken the elephant’s power and he is singing, ‘Nah nah nah nah nah, I’m the king of the jungle.’ So my questions now are: ‘How would the elephant get his power back from the mouse? What would he have to do?’ What do you think? Some people have told me that the elephant needs to realise that he is bigger than the mouse and that there is no need for him to feel scared of him. Others have been clear that the elephant needs to convince himself that he can go into the jungle again. Sooner or later, most people tell me that the elephant actually needs to go back into the jungle to take his power back from the mouse.
My question then is always: ‘Would that be easy?’ The answer – ‘No’ – is the key point of the story of ‘The Elephant and the Mouse’. It is not stupid for any of us to experience anxiety and often it is not easy to take our power back from whatever triggers it.
People have told me that they will take their power back from whatever the mouse represents. They will go in a lift; they will go on an aeroplane; they will go to school; they will have a potentially challenging conversation with their partner, child, friend, colleague or boss WHEN they feel relaxed and able for it.
They tell me that they are not going to take this step when their heart is racing and they feel sick. They are adamant that they will do it when they feel confident and at ease. The difficulty is they might be waiting for a long time. As soon as they start to think of whatever causes them to experience anxiety, they are likely to feel anxious. I encourage people who feel anxious and who prefer to avoid until they feel better to do as Susan Jeffers advised: ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway.’ It is important that they do so with a sense of self-compassion, with an understanding that it is OK to feel anxious and realising that it is often not easy to take our power back. In the next chapter, I describe how a very special man took his power back despite his anxiety increasing rather than decreasing. His courage continues to inspire me as well as the many people I have told his story to.
You can buy Finding Hope in the Age of Anxiety in Eason, Amazon, on our website and in all good bookstores nationwide.
Keep up to date with Claire on her website and connect with her on LinkedIn.