If your anxiety was a creature, what would it be? A scary monster? A life-sucking vampire?
Mine is a little fluffy stress bunny.
That’s right, a bunny. She is nervous about EVERYTHING. Her nose and whiskers are twitchy, her legs are jumpy, and her eyes are always scanning for potential catastrophes. She bounces from one worry to the next and she’s not very good at taking a rest. When she senses a threat, she completely freezes and plays dead. She tries not to move even a trembling whisker so that the fox will ignore her and go right past.
My inner stress bunny is tightly wound and extremely sensitive. She can make me act in irrational ways, send me into an emotional meltdown, or get my heart racing from one second to the next. She has caused me a lot of difficulty.
But my stress bunny is not my enemy. The truth is, she’s there to protect me. It’s her job to sniff for smoke in the air, and to then send adrenaline through my body so I can escape the forest fire.
When there’s the potential for danger, I NEED my stress bunny. For example, she helps me to be alert and keep myself safe while I explore a new place. She can also be a very helpful motivator. A little bit of anxiety about letting my clients down helps me to get my work done.
But over the years I’ve discovered that my inner stress bunny is a little TOO good at her job. She alerts me to danger when there really isn’t any. She can get confused and think she smells a forest fire when really it’s just my well-done toast in the toaster. This is when my heart starts racing, my palms get sweaty, my voice disappears, and my stomach drops – all because I hear a notification that I received an email. Or because I am about to walk into a room filled with people I know and love. These are times when my anxiety is unhelpful and unnecessary. Times when my stress bunny doesn’t need to be on duty.
As I learn to tell the difference between helpful and unhelpful anxiety, I am also learning what I can do in those moments when anxiety is unnecessary.
I do what I would do for an actual scared bunny – I pick her up, hold her close, and speak softly. “You’re okay, I’ve got you, there’s no danger here.”
In that moment of stress and overwhelm, I picture myself soothing my inner stress bunny. I take some deep breaths until my heart calms down again. Sometimes I make art about my stress bunny, and that helps too.
Every time I recognize what’s happening and stop to soothe my anxiety, I am slowly teaching my inner stress bunny that most of the things she’s scared of aren’t actually threatening. This takes time, self-kindness, and patience. It’s sometimes frustrating and it’s not usually easy.
But imagining my anxiety as a bunny helps me to do it. It helps me to have compassion for the part of myself that feels scared and worried. It also brings a lightness and a playful spirit to a challenge that can feel very overwhelming.
In the therapy world, this technique is called “externalizing.” It’s when we imagine our challenge as something concrete and tangible outside of ourselves. This helps us to separate the challenge from our identity.
Anxiety is one element of my experience, but it is not the totality of who I am. Imagining that I have an inner stress bunny helps me to remember that this is just one small part of me.
It also helps me to discover my power in relationship to anxiety. Once anxiety is a bunny, I can think about what that bunny wants and needs. Based on this insight, I can take action and do something.
Externalizing is one of the most important things I help my clients to do in art therapy. It’s how we make challenges feel a bit less scary and build our skills to make what we need. We can externalize by creating sculptures, drawing pictures, playing with toys, or telling stories. Once our challenges are out of our heads and more concrete, we can practice facing fears or responding differently.
My new bunny puppet has personally been helping me to do this!
It’s important that we find the right analogy, symbol or metaphor for each child and each challenge. While anxiety is a bunny for me, it might be a dragon, a bird, or an alien for my client. I absolutely love helping children to playfully befriend and work with their anxiety.
Today I’m feeling grateful for my inner stress bunny and all that she is teaching me. Gratitude for anxiety would have seemed unthinkable a few years ago. To me, that’s the magic of finding the right metaphor to befriend my anxiety.
Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT