Anxiety displacement is something I have been thinking about lately. I’ve been researching what I can find about it with very little success. There’s huge amounts about anger displacement, but what about the very real existence of people taking anxiety from one situation and displacing it onto anxiety about everything that ever happened or will happen.
You see, I’ve run into a pattern in my daughter’s life. Whenever she has anxiety about something, it spills onto everything else. If she has a dentist appointment, she’ll have an entire day of thinking about all the ills she has ever suffered in life and worries about them happening again. She will get into that old stuck needle on the record place where no matter what anyone says or does, she is incapable of not worrying about everything.
I’ve read account after account of other parents discovering the same pattern with their child – particularly with children whom have special needs. The intensity of the anxiety seems to be so overwhelming, that I believe the child displaces it onto familiar scenarios in an attempt to manage it. Therefore, I think it is anxiety displacement. Here is an example of how it goes:
What I’ve learned over the years is that my daughter is displacing the anxiety of going to the dentist onto everything else. She doesn’t know how to handle the intensity of her fears and she goes to the old stand-bys that she has grown used to. She has worried about her weight, her reading, misunderstanding, being bullied, having people not understand her, etc. These are old pains and old worries that we have worked through repeatedly. She knows the response she will get when she brings them up, and she hopes these responses will make her feel better – make the current fear go away. The only problem is they can’t. Hearing me remind her how well she reads now doesn’t make her fear of going to the dentist go away. So she moves on to the next old fear or pain with the same result. As you can imagine, this is exhausting and futile for both her and me.
So what I have finally learned is to not go down that path with her. I simply tell her that she is bringing up old worries and that they are not her problem right now. If I know what she is most likely having anxiety about, I talk to her about that and that only. I tell her that we can talk about those old worries later if she still wants to, but not now. For instance, when she had a dentist appointment, I told her we could talk about her worries about going to the dentist but those old worries would have to wait until after the dentist appointment, because they were probably not real worries today – just triggered from her current worry about the dentist. (Of course after the dentist appointment was over, she felt fine and no longer wished to talk about any worries.)
We also focus on feeling better right now. We have talked extensively about how all people’s brains don’t work well when we are in the middle of intense emotions and how we need to calm our mind before it will work well. Therefore, we focus on doing things that calm our minds. For my daughter, this is chewing gum, smelling lavender, being squeezed, and doing relaxing activities like singing, dancing, or watching a fun show.
Prevention Works Best:
Furthermore, I’ve found that if I can prepare for the anxiety inducing event ahead of time, life goes more smoothly for all of us. What this means is as mother, I know an event like a dentist appointment might provoke anxiety, so I plan on doing non-stressful fun events and calming things that day. I don’t plan other things for that day for her or myself, and I make sure I get enough rest and sustenance to manage the emotional day I have ahead of me. As my daughter gets older, she learns more how to do these calming things for herself and how to plan her life herself to allow for such things. That is our goal: to help her learn how to calm herself, deal with anxiety, and prepare for stressful events whenever possible.