Yes. I’ll fully admit to being an anxious, stubborn, rigid girl. If you’ve read any of my other posts on this blog, you’ll know that I struggle with chronic anxiety. With a good diet, regular exercise, and my relationship with Christ, it’s can generally be kept in check. But unbeknownst to many people, every detail of my life is given detailed, analyzed thought. Over the years, my parents learned that if they want me to listen to advice, there are key phrases that shut me down, phrases that need to be avoided, because they will push my already wired brain into overload.
“I know you don’t want to hear it, but….”
“If you would just….”
“If you would only listen….”
I’ve been experiencing this a lot more recently now that I’m a mom. And believe me, I love learning new things…I just don’t do well when someone tries to put me in a box and tell me my child will only thrive if I parent a certain way. Take my word, my mind is already chaotic enough trying to handle the anxiety of parenting. The last thing I need is someone adding to it, telling me I’m not a good parent if I don’t do it their way. Nuh-uh. Don’t even go there.
It might seem stupid, but any chance of swaying me to a particular side of an argument is smashed when begun with these phrases. I’m not trying to be obstinate for the sake of being difficult. There’s a specific reason I shut down that I didn’t even understand myself until recently. It’s this sentiment that helps me understand students with Autism when they shut down, or realize when students are struggling with anxiety. My point is that there’s a reason people with anxiety are often very, very stubborn. This stubbornness is called Rigidity.
Examples of People Being Stubborn Due to Anxiety
1. Charlie has high functioning Autism and is in a general education fourth grade classroom. He loves to follow rules, and is generally not a behavior problem in school. His teacher announces one day that it’s time to grade the math assignment from the night before. Charlie can’t find his math book, the one with his name written in it. Although his neighbor offers to share her book with him, he insists repeatedly that it’s not the right one. He has a temper tantrum and continues to refuse to use the book, no matter what his teacher says.
2. Emily has Depression due to Anxiety. It’s her senior year of high school, and she needs to apply for colleges. She has a high grade point average and is doing well in all of her classes. There’s really no reason for her not to get accepted into the local colleges. But no matter how much her mother tells her to start the application process, Emily procrastinates. She promises her mother that she’ll do it, but by the time she’s halfway through the year, still nothing has been done.
3. Jack has Down Syndrome, but is high functioning. He spends most of his day in the general education second grade classroom he attends. He spends on hour a day in the resource room, however, and another hour in some sort of therapy (physical, occupation, or speech), depending on the day of the week. Despite his disabilities, Jack is smart, and knows what to expect with the help of his aid during the day. One day, he comes to school and refuses to do his morning D.O.L. (Daily Oral Language) practice. His aid doesn’t know why, as he is used to the schedule, and begins each morning with D.O.L. just like the other students. The rest of the day follows suit, and Jack does little but cry and angrily tell everyone, “No!”
4. Jessica is twenty-nine-years-old, and has a business trip coming up. A coworker walks up to her desk at work and tells Jessica that she needs to get her dog chipped before she goes on vacation. Jessica smiles and says she’ll think about it, but the coworker continues to tell her why she needs to get her dog chipped that day after work, as Jessica is leaving the next morning. The more the coworker talks, the less Jessica smiles. Finally, Jessica stands up and makes a curt departure, muttering about how she needs to go do something in the supply room. The coworker doesn’t understand why Jessica changed moods so quickly. Jessica’s always sweet.
The Anxiety Link
All of these people have something in common. They struggle with anxiety. Unfortunately, anxiety isn’t something the world is simply able to see, the way they would the cast for a broken leg, or the dark circles under eyes for insomnia. Like a broken leg or insomnia, anxiety can really throw a kink into life. But it’s an invisible hitch that others often see the effects of and don’t recognize or understand.
All of our sample individuals have anxiety, but their anxiety stems from different mindsets or stressors. If someone you know is oddly stubborn about certain situations, it’s probably a good idea to examine their life to see if their stubbornness could come from anxiety.
1. Individuals with Autism often struggle with anxiety, but their stressors are unusual when compared with the rest of the world. My Asperger’s Child’s article, “Aspergers Children and ‘Rigidity,'” says, ” Routines and rules are very important to kids with Aspergers in providing a sense of needed order and structure, and hence, predictability about the world.” (Asperger’s is now considered just another form of Autism, according to the DSM-V.) Charlie’s refusal to use math book that’s not his own isn’t meant to make his teacher’s life miserable or distract his classmates. To Charlie, using the math book with his name on it ensures he won’t get into trouble for using or taking someone else’s. He knows that book is his because it’s “in the rules.” Due to his disorder, Charlie struggles to know how to compensate when the structure of his world is changed. It’s not his fault-it’s the way he’s wired to think.
2. As frustrated as Emily’s mother is that Emily isn’t applying for colleges, she must remember that Emily isn’t simply trying to escape college. Emily wants to go, but the idea of applying to colleges is overwhelming to Emily. She doesn’t know how to begin, and where most people would seek out a school counselor or parent to help with the applications, Emily’s brain already feels like it’s on overload. Her brain goes into a defensive mode, and locks down. Chances are, Emily “locked down” about other things as a child, things that scared her or made her nervous, but might seem silly to other people. Emily’s depression will probably jump if unaided due to the stresses of senior year. It’s important for those around her to remember that her sudden desire to sleep and be alone isn’t because she’s “acting out,” but is instead due to her brain’s inability to handle the challenges all at once on her own.
3. Some of my favorite work was with a child with Down Syndrome. Unfortunately, the sweet girl I worked with often struggled with anxiety, and on those days, life was rough for all involved. In Jack’s case, Jack probably had something upsetting happen at home. Perhaps his father went on a business trip, or his mother is sick, or she didn’t have time to make his favorite breakfast before school. Whatever it was, Jack lacks the ability to recover from the traumatic experience on his own. As small as the upsetting event may seem, it’s traumatic to Jack. The National Down Syndrome Society’s article, “Mental Health Issues & Down Syndrome,” says that individuals with DS are often, “Anxious, stuck, ruminative, inflexible behaviors (raising concerns of co-existing generalized anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders).” Jack isn’t trying to make his aid’s job harder. His brain is stuck ruminating, focusing on what went “wrong” this morning, and it’s going to be very difficult to get it out of that position.
4. I’ll admit, this example is from myself. I struggle with chronic general anxiety, and like Emily, my brain has defense mechanisms that I don’t always understand myself. I’m the type of person, like Jessica, that wants to have all of her ducks in a row. In fact, it’s so important to have all of my ducks in a row, that having a single duck out of place can cause me great anxiety. So when I’m already struggling to get an area of my life in order, people don’t understand that I’ve very likely devoted hours, or even days or weeks to how to accomplish that task. And while I might have forgotten something important, like when Jessica’s coworker insisted she get her dog chipped, telling me that I MUST GET IT DONE is going to put my brain into overload. Though I’m generally (or so I’m told) an easy person to get along with, insisting that I reorganize a part of my life that I’ve already struggled with will probably not only be met with frustration, it will probably make me less likely to do what I’m told to do than I would have been before.
What to Do
This doesn’t mean that people with anxiety can be allowed to shut down and do whatever they want all the time. Life marches on, and Charlie’s math must be graded, Emily must apply to college, Jack must do schoolwork, and Jessica needs to chip her dog. But there are better ways to get these necessities done than nagging, ways that will leave everyone less stressed and less likely to become obstinate.
For people helping individuals who struggle with rigidity, it’s important to know what makes these individuals tick. For example, Charlie’s teacher might have a student already designated to share with Charlie if he loses his book. If he knows this ahead of time, that there’s a legal “fallback” option, he’s much less likely to have a meltdown and disrupt class.
For people like Emily, who struggle with depression and anxiety, Emily’s parents would do well to not only come up with a list of steps that it takes to apply to colleges, but to apply to at least one or two with her so that she can feel successful with the help of her parents, and can have a list of steps that she’s practiced when it’s time for her to continue applying on her own.
For people like Jack, Jack’s aids, parents, and teacher will need to help him reset his brain. That might mean a short walk out in the school hallways, or ten minutes reading a favorite book. Children with Down Syndrome often need time apart from their usual activities if they’re going to “start over.”
For people like me and Jessica, it’s important to avoid certain phrases like the ones I began this post with. Instead of saying, “I know you don’t want to hear it, but…,” or, “If you would only/just…,” it would be more helpful to list the benefits of chipping the dog. I’m far more likely to listen to positive benefits of an action than forceful, negative repercussions. Positive words will allow me to feel as if I’m not under so much pressure, and my brain is less likely to shut down. I can better process the reorganization of whatever I was planning, whether it’s a trip, a day, or an errand.
What About All the Other Rigid People?
No two people are just alike, but people with certain disorders or struggles often think similarly. There are two things you can do to help the people you love become more flexible, and respond more positively to stress.
1) Get to know the individual. Avoid phrases or negative words that seem to set them off. If you don’t know, ask! Ask them how you can help them lower their stress levels. What can you do to help them remember things without nagging them. If they aren’t able to answer those questions, like some individuals with certain disabilities can’t, make mental notes. Every time you see a meltdown, take notes of what happened immediately before so you can attempt not to repeat it in the future.
2) Read about it! Educate yourself about what that person might be struggling with. If it’s a disability, try to learn all you can about the stressors that often come with that disorder or disability. If it’s a child, talk to his teachers and see what they notice at school. See if behaviors at school and at home correlate. Sometimes, you might be dealing with an issue of the past, rather than a disorder. Knowledge is key. Nothing will be immediate, but an attempt to learn and understand your loved one will never be wasted.
Nothing is a guarantee to fix the anxiety, but an attempt to learn about what sets that individual off can really be helpful. In time, you might be able to help that individual learn to be more flexible, which in the end, will be best for all involved.
Do you have experience or questions about rigidity and anxiety? I’d love to hear! Please share you comments in the Comment Box below, or email me. If you’d like to learn more and get free information on topics like this and my writing, please subscribe to my newsletter. As always, thanks for reading!