Monday 31 October 2016

Anxiety and the delayed effect

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on anxiety disorders, I'm just commenting on what we see on a very very regular basis. If you feel that you have issues with anxiety, the best advice that I can give you is to go and see your GP.

This afternoon O walked through the door at home and immediately I knew that something was up. O didn't have to say or do anything, I just knew. Call it mothers intuition, call it picking up on cues, call it what you like, I just knew that something was wrong. I knew that her anxiety had been eating at her all day and that I was about to see the delayed effect.

I knew that O had had a tricky day at school and that she had managed to hold it together for the entire day - at before school care, at school and in the car on the way home. I knew that she didn't draw attention to herself all day and that very shortly, cyclone O was about to hit.

O may have been showing small signs throughout the day, signs that someone who knows O well or someone who has experience in childhood anxiety may have spotted early in the day. O may have been stimming, she may have been chewing on her shirt or she may have been fidgeting. These are all little signs that her anxiety is beginning to take over, beginning to consume her every thought. O's small cues may have been missed or they may have been mistaken for tiredness.

I'm not sure that O is able to recognise that her anxiety is rising until it's too late and then because O hasn't learnt the skills she needs to lower her anxiety, she starts going round in circles which in turn increases her anxiety. It's a vicious circle and it is one that she struggles to get herself out of without assistance.

As we walk through the door, all the remaining energy seeps out of O and I can see her deflating like a balloon. O's face tenses up, she has red cheeks, her body is stiff, her speech is reduced to very short simple sentences and she constantly has her shirt in her mouth. O needs a snack to eat but we don't have the right ones in the cupboard. Our lorikeet squawks hello too loudly, L runs past too quickly.

I try to engage O in conversation to distract her, to get her mind out of the anxiety trap, but she isn't able to answer as there is a fog that surrounds her and she isn't able to process what I'm saying.

O starts to get angry and she's no longer in control of her body, she starts to lash out at L. L then lashes back and round two has begun.

O is in full meltdown mode, there is no turning back. All her pent up frustration has to come out. O kicks and screams and lashes out at anyone that comes close. We just have to let her ride it out.

This, my friend, is the delayed effect.

Some medical professionals have called it "the delayed effect." Others have called it the "pressure cooker" situation. Others call it the "bottle of pop phenomenon."

The delayed effect is a very common challenge that many children and adults with ASD face on a daily basis. I would say that individuals who suffer from  anxiety may also experience the delayed effect. And the tricky bit is that quite often people outside the family unit don't ever see this other side. Parents will describe the child one way, schools see a completely different side. It's almost like a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde type situation.

Some children are able to hide the signs of anxiety very well. They can often contain their feelings and their teachers remain blissfully unaware of the rising stress inside their students. The child's teacher will often not believe, or at least struggle to believe, the parents or may not understand, as they may never see this other side of the child.

When we've tried to explain this other side of O, we've been told -
"But she's always so happy, she can't have anxiety."
"She smiles alot, she has a lot of friends, she doesn't have anything to be worried about."
"But she's so polite and friendly in class, she never yells."
I'm sure that at times, her teachers think that we are fabricating how O behaves at home. It wasn't until I recorded one of her meltdowns, that people started believing what we described and took us seriously.

The rising anxiety throughout the day might be due to any number of things. A new topic might have been introduced in class. Class reading groups may have been changed. The classroom may have been rearranged. There might have been a relief teacher for dance. O may have struggled to understand a task that her teacher had set. The noise levels in class may have gotten too high.

I liken anxiety to that of a duck paddling on a lake. Above the surface of the water, the duck appears so graceful, gliding along the surface. Below the water, the duck is paddling away furiously just to stay afloat. It's exhausting for the duck and after a while, the duck needs to take a break.

O's break is at home. O is somewhere safe, she is somewhere familiar and simply can't contain the pressure anymore. O feels safe and secure with us, we understand her, we won't judge her and won't hate her for whatever she may do or say. We're the predictable part of her day, we're her calm.

After the meltdown, exhaustion sets in. The exhaustion doesn't just hit O, it hits L, her Dad and myself. It's hard being a mum on the receiving end of the delayed effect as it holds no prisoners and it really doesn't care who it hurts in the process. I can't even imagine how it feels for O. She is beginning to express how it feels, but she doesn't fully understand the how or the why it happens.

O is gradually learning the skills she needs so that she can recognise her rising anxiety levels and so that she can get herself out of the vicious circle. We use a combination of story books, breathing techniques, essential oils and sensory toys to help O to relax and calm down. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. We also take O to see a child psychologist so that she can learn strategies to help her when she starts to feel anxious.

The delayed effect, it's real. Trust me. Individuals suffering from anxiety need support, not disbelief. So the next time, you hear someone say that they or their child suffers from anxiety, please don't brush them off. Offer support. Be that friendly ear that they may need. Be their predictable.


  1. As a person who suffers from anxiety, and has a child who I'm seeing the signs in I can appreciate this post. Your analogy with the duck is bang on. Appearances can be deceiving. Your last paragraph is so important.

  2. Impressive story. It's good that you're sharing this! It will learn a lot of people about it. I hope O. will learn about the skills she needs to recognize rising anxiety. But it's lucky that you're there!

    1. O is slowly getting there, it's going to take time but we will get there!

  3. I absolutely agree with you. "Individuals suffering from anxiety need support, not disbelief." I have experienced anxiety. I am thankful that I have friends who are always there to help me.

    1. It makes me very happy to hear that you have support, it definitely makes it a little easier.

  4. I too suffer from anxiety. When I lived with my parents I could make it through an entire day with no realizing anything was happening. The second my mom saw me though she would immediately know and start comforting with me without ever bringing up the word "anxiety". She just knew when it was happening and gave me what I needed to deal with it. Mother's intuition is extremely important to a child with anxiety, O is lucky to have you.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. Sounds like your Mum was very caring xx


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