The Root and Purpose of Anxiety

She was stood at the window anxiously peering out from behind the net curtains. Prior to this she’d been pacing around the room, unnecessarily tidying things: placing things in a particular way on the sideboard; dusting when there wasn’t any dust to be rid of.

The child watching all of this must of been about four. Most of the time the little girl was quiet; pleasantly occupied with her doll and assorted menagerie of stuffed toys. Every now and then though, she would notice her mothers pacing and tidying, and feel a strange flutter in her stomach. Sometime she’d become quite upset by her mothers strange behaviour and feel like crying. She knew not to cry though, because this often made mummy angry.

The sound of a key turning in the lock made everything change. The little girl’s mother quickly moved out of site into the hallway: ‘Where have you been? I’ve been so worried!’ she exclaimed.

‘Stop your fretting, I’ve got here as quickly as I could, I told you I might be a little late. You know things are difficult at work and the time I finish might vary.’ This gruff reply was the familiar sound of her fathers voice. After this her mother seemed calmer; her mood lighter.

Walking from the hallway she approached the little girl, smiled and gently stroked her hair, seeming to notice her for the first time in ages. She’d be off to the kitchen soon, humming, as she began to prepare dinner.


We can easily imagine the scenario in our story and by examining it we can gain an objective view of what’s going on. Obviously, mother is anxiously waiting the return of her partner, and her behaviour is a symptom of this. The child in the room is watching her mother’s behaviour and empathically picking up on her fear.

The child senses a difference in her mother’s behaviour.

Most of the time mother is attentive and caring and yet at other times she is distracted and short tempered. And so, in accordance to her mother’s moods, the child is learning to respond and behave differently herself. Sensing the change in her mothers mood, once her father returns home, the young girl is also beginning to formulate an understanding of her mother’s anxiety.

For mother, as the day wares on, there is a gradual escalation of anxiety.

Other than housework and childcare there is little else to concern her. An unrecognized feeling is that of loneliness and there is also slight conflict. Her partner is out working, potentially doing something challenging and varied, and she feels slight resentment being stuck at home. Looking after her daughter is a responsibility that has become something of a burden. She loves her little girl, and yet at the same time, didn’t fully appreciate how imprisoned she would sometimes feel. The situation is beyond her control.

Resentment, loneliness, and the burden of responsibility, disappears, once her partner returns home from work. Childcare instantly becomes shared and the stimulation of her partners company eases any feelings of loneliness. As a family she feels secure.

If we change the word anxiety to fear we’re better able to understand its root and make the necessary change to our thinking.

Whenever we are frightened we will look for ways to manage this. An extreme coping mechanism – that can develop – is that of obsessive compulsive behaviour (OCD). With our example, some control is exerted over the situation, when the house looks ordered and clean. Continually returning to tidying and dusting, is a distraction from the real issues of feeling insecure, isolated and powerless.

For a short time a certain level of control is gained over others by the anxious person.

We must understand that the symptoms of anxiety aren’t actually the problem but the cure. The real problem is how our example feels about her situation. We need only consider her partners response to her anxiety: he rushes home. Anxiety, displayed by his partner, is exerting a level of control over how he behaves towards her. He is moderating his own behaviour beyond what would naturally occur to him.

It could be that he’s not a particularly caring or considerate individual, and anxiety from his partner, is being used as a means to modify his behaviour. He’s manipulated into behaving in a way more expected by his partner. The result being eventual friction and stress within the relationship. He’s not quite the prince she imagined him to be.

All in all, we must recognise the root to our anxiety, and find its true purpose. We mustn’t look to control and manipulate people through being worried about them. The individual in our example needed to recognise the conflicts she was facing and learn to feel secure within herself. Seeking to manage internal conflict and anxiety, through trying to control things that will ultimately always be beyond our control (other people’s behaviour and consideration), is the dilemma of this particular person.

Take a moment to review the short story and consider what the witness to anxiety is learning.

Seeing and emulating erratic behaviour, that is understood to have purpose and power, is now the dilemma of the child. Fear is passed forward until we understand how we have nothing to fear, once control over ourselves, is gained. The mother in our story must come to understand that control over herself is granted through acceptance of the situation. We must take responsibility for the decisions we’ve made and understand that it is how we think that decides the outcome of our lives. Only then will we all see the alternatives on offer.

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