Dr Rachel Chin, clinical psychologist, has written about trauma and growth and her struggle with anxiety.
I have incredibly supportive family and friends. I have a job which I love and this allows me to focus on supporting others to improve and maintain their mental health and wellbeing. I work as a clinical psychologist and a yoga teacher.
I believe that out of challenge comes growth. I feel grateful that every situation and every interaction we have in life can teach us something. We all have lived experiences and with this comes a wealth of understanding about ourselves, others, and life in general.
We don’t need to have a teaching qualification, or educational achievements to teach others. Teaching and learning opportunities are around us all the time, in our observations and interactions. Living life with awareness enables us to notice these opportunities moment by moment.
Sometimes we are more aware of the learning as it is happening, or shortly after. However, some of our most powerful lessons can take longer to process and perhaps it is only after the event, through reflection, that we recognise and appreciate our personal growth.
In this post I would like to share one of my lessons related to anxiety and how my experiences have shaped me. I was a sociable child, a little shy, and at times overwhelmed by anxiety. Anxiety got in the way of some of the things I loved. I loved ballet and at the age of seven I thought this was the job I was destined to do. Well a ballerina or a vet! I never managed to take any ballet exams and formally progress through the grades because prior to exams I would get intense anxiety which often resulted in me being awake the night before exams with sickness.
Thankfully I had a supportive ballet teacher who allowed me to move through classes based on my skills in the class and not on exam performance. In classes I felt nurtured, encouraged, and safe. Whereas the formality of exams led to performance anxiety, and a fear of forgetting my routine and not passing the exam.
Anxiety followed me into other areas of my life. I recall sitting my 11 Plus exams to get into a grammar school and not being able to write because my hand wouldn’t stop shaking, my heart felt like it was going to burst out of my chest, and I just froze. Needless to say I didn’t pass the exam.
I have a vivid memory of my mum sharing the news, me bursting into tears and her comforting me with her words and touch. My mum’s words were powerful then and still are now. She told me: “You’ll do well where ever you go, all that you can do is try your best and that’s good enough”. Over the years her words have altered slightly, but the meaning remains the same. She now tells me to “shine bright” and I still find these words so nurturing, motivating and encouraging.
However, it was hard to digest and internalise these words at the age of 11 because this perceived sense of failure impacted on my confidence at school. In my early years at high school I was really into sports. I loved netball and running, especially the 800 metres.
“Approaching what we fear with kindness and compassion can be really helpful”
On reflection I think sport really helped with my anxiety and confidence. I overcame some of the performance anxiety because competition and challenge were part of sports. I learnt that we could face challenge together, we could support each other and even when we trained hard and played our best sometimes this wasn’t enough to win and this was okay.
As a young child I didn’t know that anxiety is normal, it is functional, there are common triggers, and that anxiety impacts people in different ways, which aren’t always obvious. When we feel anxious we have the urge to avoid. Although in the short-term we might feel this protects us from feeling more anxiety and other emotions; long-term we don’t learn that the anxiety will pass or that we can engage in helpful strategies to try and reduce the intensity of the emotion.
Approaching what we fear with kindness and compassion can be really helpful. When we face some challenging situations we have the opportunity to see ourselves grow and develop and we can experience a sense of achievement. Taking some time to absorb these accomplishments is important.
Writing down how we feel afterwards and the types of thoughts running through our mind can be helpful, and something we can revisit to encourage us during more challenging times ahead. Psycho education, normalisation, validation, and belief that change is possible are incredibly important. These are all areas I focus on as a psychologist.
My experiences have taught me to always start with someone’s strengths and nurture these. When someone sees our strengths and genuinely believes in us and supports our growth we thrive. Just like plants we need the right conditions and environment to grow. I also really like this analogy: ‘Be a forklift, always try to lift others up’, this might be with kind words and praise or through our actions. Kindness costs nothing.