Lorraine Kerr-Atkinson M.S. NCC, LPC

9090 S. Ridgeline Blvd, Suite 220 Littleton, CO 80129

Serving Highlands Ranch


Anxiety and Compassion

Anxiety and Compassion

In my last blog, I wrote about the relationship between biology and anxiety. I used the anxious dog that my family rescued as a basis for my blog. I used my dog, not because I am a lover of “cute” little dogs, (I confess, until I had Luna, I actually rather disliked little dogs), but because I wanted to change your image of anxiety.

What do you picture when you think of your anxiety? The classic painting, The Scream by Edward Munch, comes to mind (http://www.edvardmunch.org/the-scream.jsp). In fact, if you search for photos on line using the description of anxious or anxiety, you will often get a picture of someone screaming.

The problem with equating anxiety with screaming is that it can make you feel worse. When I imagine anxiety as someone screaming, I want to put my hand over my ears, runaway, and lock myself in a room. In fact, that is exactly how some people handle their anxiety. They try to ignore their anxiety. They may begin to avoid people, places, and choices that cause anxiety. In effect, they lock themselves away from their own lives.

But what if your anxiety was like an anxious rescue dog? Would you ignore the distressed barks of a dog? No! Would you lock the dog into a dark room? No, of course you wouldn’t. You would try to comfort the dog. That might involve petting the dog or it might require you to do a little detective work. When does the distressed barking start? Is the dog hungry, thirsty? Does the dog need training? You would be kind and curious with a dog.

Yet it is troubling but common that when it comes to their anxiety, most clients are not kind and curious to themselves. In fact, they are downright mean! Many anxious clients spend a lot of time criticizing themselves in the mistaken belief that criticism will motivate them or lessen their anxiety. I have yet to see self-criticism help a client; criticizing yourself for being anxious simply does not work! And yet, criticizing and calling oneself names is the most common way to handle anxiety.

If I yell at my rescue dog because she is anxious, what will she do? She will cower and tremble even more! Her fear will increase! The same principle applies to your anxiety. If you criticize yourself for being anxious, your anxiety will only escalate! Again and again when I ask clients to stop and check their anxiety levels after they have been bashing themselves for being anxious, they are surprised to find their anxiety is higher!

Anxious clients are sometimes shocked to find that it is not the anxiety itself that is slowing them down, but their reaction to the anxiety that is keeping them stuck. It is the extra layer of doubt, criticism, name calling, and doom saying that prevents you from plunging into your life.

What if you treated your anxiety with the same compassion you would use with a rescue dog? What if you did not criticize, yell at, dread, become discouraged, or struggle with your anxiety? What if you were attentive, kind and gentle? What if you learned to loved this anxious animal part of yourself and began to care for it with compassion and skill? My dog’s anxiety always goes down when she gets lots of love and attention from my family. Always…

However, being compassionate with yourself is easier said than done. I know that having compassion for someone else is sometimes easier than having compassion for myself. It is the same with many of my clients. Self-compassion is actually a skill that needs coaching and practice; it does not usually spontaneously arrive in our lives. We have to deliberately cultivate and nurture self-compassion.

I needed to work with a dog trainer to learn how to train my dog and lessen her anxiety. Think of self-compassion as part of the training you need so that you can begin to care for your anxiety—that fearful animal inside you that needs rescuing and love, not loathing.

“When people ask, “How did you overcome your fear?” I simply say, “By loving what I feared.” (Mark Nepo, Finding Inner Courage, 2007, p. 47)