Archive for the ‘parenting’ Category

Attention gone awry: performance anxiety

A teenager from the High School in which I work came to me today because she missed her final exam.

Her reason was not that she did not know or understand the material, nor was she sick, or held up due to an unforeseen emergency.  It was simply that she could not cope under the stress.

Performance anxiety is a pervading sense of nervous energy gone awry.  The mind wanders here and there and everywhere that is not the present moment.  Stillness is impossible.  Being aware and responding to the context in which you find yourself is essential – but performance anxiety acts like a cue ball that scatters all the rest in various directions until each takes on a life of its own, spiralling, without purpose or direction.

It can make a person feel incompetent.  Because even though you may know the material, your scattered attention is unable to attend to the task at hand, be it making a study plan, reading a paragraph, making notes or answering an exam question.

The mind is a muscle.  Channeling your attention to where we need it to go takes time and practice.

Start with the breath. Breathe in and out. Count slowly.  Make sure your belly rises as you draw in a deep breath over 4 seconds. Hold.  Release. Bit by bit.  Pause and repeat.

Bring your attention back to your breath. When it wanders into the future, into the worry of what will happen or could happen, bring it back to Now.  Breathe.

All that you can do is respond to the moment that faces you.  Ever.  Gather your courage and bring your attention back to the Now.  What is it that is asks of you?  Your fight or flight response may be activated by the fear of what may come.  Greet this fear.  It alerts you to focus and demands of your energy.  Breathe.  And respond.

Fear is not the enemy.  Without fear, we would not know when to fight, freeze or flee. Bring your attention back to what your fear is telling you.  What is the best way in which you can expend your energy, right here, right now?  Do you need to to take a walk to calm your mind? Or put on a calming melody?  Perhaps you will wash your face or take off your shoes so the soles of your feet can feel the comforting grip of the solid, reliable ground.  Breathe.  And release.

Performance anxiety is your mind’s horsepower behaving like an a band of horses with no direction.  Powerful but purposeless.  This energy is a gift.  It is that energy that will allow you to act or withdraw, forge ahead or change direction.  Harness it.

Harnessing your mind’s energy is probably the most powerful skill one can acquire. Channelling this energy in the best way possible in the moment that stands before you is the challenge.

Start with resting your attention on your breath.  It connects the inner you with the world around you. Take in what you need.  Exhale what you don’t.

Breathe.  And release.


I humbly bow my head as I write this.

I call myself a psychotherapist. I work with children and families in crisis. I have been doing so for 5 years now. A client once asked me, why Shazia do you do this work? I knew at that moment, she needed an answer. An honest answer. A clear answer.

So I responded, honestly, brutally, openly: Because it’s the hardest thing I have ever done. Because families seek therapy when they are in severe crisis. When their children have troubles for which they have found no solution. For families who cannot seem to understand each other or communicate well enough to move forward from a stand-off. Teens in transition, children with severe behavioral problems, young people who have been traumatized in their early years to have the experiences of trauma re-enacted in different ways…

But now that my own daughter has turned a corner, and has entered the pre-teen years, I reflect for a moment, and in that pause I know, what I uttered was not true. Providing support and guidance to families in crisis is indeed difficult, but nothing compares to the task of parenting. Parenting is by far the most difficult experience I have ever confronted. It was not always like this.

When my daughter was born, I knew how to be her mother instantly. I know now that that does not happen instinctively with all mothers, for some take time to grow into their motherhood; while others hone these parenting skills with experience and time. I was lucky. She was born and I just knew how to be her mother. But it’s certainly not that way anymore.

Fiercely independent, vocal, and responsible from the outset – she is changing into a young person who needs space, privacy, and more room to make her own decisions. She can go days without saying more than 2-3 words to me. She wants to organize her own room, manage her schoolwork, and independently plans her own social life. There are times when I feel that I am no more than a logistical coordinator for her busy social calendar.

I admit, there have been moments when I feel left out, abandoned and rejected. I feel side-lined, out of control, and barricaded (literally – her room door is often locked) and I feel helpless, powerless, and very, very scared. How am I supposed to take care of her if I don’t know what’s happening? How am I going to make sure she is safe and learning good values? How can I ensure that she has enough support to deal with her troubles?

Her father and I talk endlessly on these topics, each of us relying on the other to provide guidance and solutions. Neither one of us feels in charge.

Then I remember the analogy. Parenting is like teaching a child how to ride a bike. At first, you hold the bike and teach the child to climb on. All the while, holding it in balance. Then you walk alongside as the child learns to pedal, holding onto the handlebars so it does not tip to one side or the other. Next comes the part when the child starts pedaling a little faster. And it’s time to run alongside, while allowing the child the freedom to maneuver while remaining ready to catch her if she falls. If she does manage to tumble off, you are there to pick her up and help her brush herself off and climb on again. Until she takes off on her course, navigating the bumpy terrain.

I remind myself now- she is ready to start pedaling on her own. She needs me to let go of the handlebars. But that does not mean I can stop running or walk away – no. Even though she is ready to balance, this sense of balance is new. I have to run alongside, waiting and watching – steadying her if she tips off balance.

As frightening as it is for me to “let go” – I now recall, every major step of her development has been anxiety-provoking: enrolling her at pre-school at 19 months, the month I sent her off to Canada to be with her grandparents while I went to study in Amsterdam, the first time she travelled with her school to Europe for 2 weeks… each one of these milestones has been extremely challenging.

But this one for some reason is harder than the others. Because it’s not about adjusting to her absence that is needed here, rather it is about adjusting to a different kind of presence. She is here, with me, day in and day out, but she is her own person, with very distinct and unique needs.

So I still myself and listen. To what she is saying without using words. If I cannot be there with her, I will be around her, watching out for her, observing signs, watching her back, so to speak. Not hovering, rather standing guard – vigilant but from a distance. And I practice staying calm. It’s not easy because the words, my words, keep echoing in my ears – “But she’s only 11″. Everything has happened earlier than I thought. I recall the words of the principal of her pre-school. “Shazia, your daughter is fine, it’s you who needs to adjust.”

So true.