Information to follow may disturb you.
How often do you hear a news story start by telling you that some people might be disturbed by the information to follow?
When you see it, what do you think? How does it make you feel?
Some people get tense when they hear this. They’re sure that what is going to be said is going to bother them. Maybe it will ruin their whole day.
They start thinking about things that happened to them over the years that were disturbing. Maybe they hadn’t been thinking anything but positive thoughts and now…
They’re on edge. They’re ready for something bad.
There’s a phrase we use in the psychiatric business called “anticipatory anxiety.” I don’t have to explain this to anybody who’s actually had this happen to them. It describes a very real problem very well.
The idea is you think a certain situation or thing is going to make you anxious, so you think about it.
And think about it.
And the more you think about it the more you think it will upset you.
And you don’t want to get upset, so you get anxious about the idea that you’re going to get upset.
In other words, you think you’re going to get anxious, so you get anxious about the idea that you might get anxious. You ‘anticipate’ that you’ll be anxious so you’re anxious about being anxious.
A word of warning
The fact of anticipatory anxiety – getting anxious that you might get anxious – is the reason I started wondering if there was any research on what those warnings were actually doing.
You hear them all the time. The precede radio stories.
They’re written into magazines.
TV has them all over the place.
I wondered: did warning you that something might be disturbing bother you more than the events in the story themselves?
And the answer is…
It’s like the idea of ringing a bell any time your dog is going to be fed. Eventually, any time
the dog hears that bell he thinks he’s going to get food.
So he stops whatever it is he’s doing and pays full attention.
In the same way, the warning that things might be upsetting prepares your body and mind to be upset.
If you hear that warning do you try to avoid whatever it is that’s going to be said? Some people do.
But they’re still “disturbed” because they might be disturbed, so even hiding from it doesn’t help.
Helping your kid avoid things isn’t helping your kid
You hear the term “obsessive compulsive’ a lot, but I don’t think most people understand just what it is or how disabling it can be.
I had a 13 yo boy who had severe compulsions. This is where you feel like you have to do a specific thing because if you don’t, in your mind you think something awful will happen. It makes you so uncomfortable you can barely function.
In his case he “had to” close doors seven times. Not six. Not nine. Seven.
He had to turn the light switch exactly seven times. But since an odd number of flicks of the switch would result in the light being on, he had to do it seven more times so the light would be off, if that was what he wanted to have happen.
He had rituals about eating. About where his fork had to sit (exactly two inches to the left of his plate and nowhere near his napkin).
And if he didn’t do these things he felt terrible and couldn’t eat
Pretty soon, everybody in the household was being careful not to touch things, to set the table just so, to touch doorknobs in a particular way. Everyone in the family was trying to help.
He was so miserable they wanted to do anything they could to relieve some of his distress.
But he wasn’t getting better even though everybody was trying to help him. Instead, he seemed to be developing even more compulsions that were making his life unbearable.
Their ‘help’ only made things worse
When I met the boy and his parents, I was touched by how much his brother and sister were trying to help, even though it made things worse for them.
And I was sorry to have to point something out that seemed pretty obvious to me. Their ‘help’ wasn't helping him.
The rest of the world doesn’t follow the same rules. At school he was getting in trouble for being late to classes. The rituals he had to perform took longer than the time between classes permitted.
The friends he had had gradually stopped wanting to be around him because the only thing he wanted to do was concentrate on those behaviors that would (maybe) make him feel better.
I won’t go into the months of therapy we went through to help him get past some of his behaviors and let himself relax just a bit.
However, I will say that the thing we focused on most was gradually exposing him to what the world was like when he didn’t perform those acts he thought he had to do.
I had him learn to relax his body and mind after he closed a door only four times, not seven.
Instead of avoiding the things that bothered him so much, I helped him calm himself and see that the world didn’t end if his rituals weren’t completed.
Instead of avoiding a huge number of things that might distress him, I helped him face the things that he did fear.
Some people might find this disturbing
Every time I hear that phrase, I cringe. I wonder how many people who don’t know how to relieve their anxiety suffer from hearing a warning that supposedly is going to help them?
That is, it’s helps them avoid things that might cause them to be miserable, and gives them something that’s guaranteed to make them miserable instead.
Please understand, I am very sympathetic to how much pain someone is in if they have sudden memories or “flashbacks” to highly traumatic events.
But helping them avoid things that might distress them doesn’t help them get past these events and help them get on with their lives.
The rest of the world isn’t going to warn them ahead of time that what’s to come might be disturbing.
You've been warned. Now what?
The next time you hear one of these warnings, notice how it makes you feel. Does it cause you to worry? Do you suddenly start thinking about other things that bother you?
If you're one of the millions of people who hear such messages and then become anxious, consider talking to a mental health professional about how to get beyond this problem.
It's pretty clear that the people who started coming up with these warnings meant to help. But does it really cause more trauma? Or at least, does make the trauma that's there better?
Avoiding scary (but not harmful) words and scenes doesn't help anyone to overcome their difficulties.
It's possible that sometime you're going to run into that thing you've been avoiding, but you won't be warned ahead of time.
What do you do then if you're not prepared?
Learning to deal with those sudden memories that show up unannounced is a much better way to learn to deal with trauma.
The story to follow may be disturbing to some people...
But by avoiding it you may be letting yourself be a victim instead of someone who overcomes their fears.
Let me know your thoughts.
Illustration of warning sign by @CanStockPhoto Inc/Arcady
Illustration of dog by @CanStockPhoto Inc/bluering
Illustration of dinner setting by @CanStockPhoto Inc/Kamaga
Image of hiding person by @CanStockPhoto Inc/cteconsulting