The Mighty Logo

Finding Your ‘Anxiety Animal’ Might Be the Tool You Need Right Now

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

If your anxiety was an animal, what animal would it be? First one that pops in your head. Don’t second-guess it. Don’t change it. Got it? We’ll talk more about it in a minute. 

I listen to a podcast by Audrey Grunst called “Audrey Off the Cuff.” She is a therapist, entrepreneur and mama. She shared the technique she uses in therapy when people are experiencing anxiety. She asks the person to tell her what animal their anxiety would be if it was described as an animal. Just the first animal that pops into their heads. Then she asks them to think about why this animal embodies their anxiety. What qualities does this animal have that embody their anxiety?

Sometimes, my children’s anxiety feels like my full-time job. I have to think eight steps ahead, all day, every day, to make sure my kids are taken care of and can cope with anything that will come their way. It’s exhausting. It has gotten a bit better as they’ve gotten older, but anxiety is still a big part of our family.

I asked my 10-year-old daughter to tell me what animal her anxiety is. She responded quickly: fox. I asked her what makes her anxiety a fox. What qualities does a fox have that her anxiety also has? Ella thought for a moment, and then answered, “I never know when my anxiety is coming. It’s sneaky like a fox. Sometimes I don’t see it coming and then all of a sudden it’s just there and it’s overwhelming.”

Profound. So profound.

I asked my husband what animal his anxiety is. He said it’s an elephant. He didn’t know why. I told him to think about the traits an elephant has: giant. Heavy. Immovable. His eyes lit up because it made sense to him — his anxiety sometimes feels so huge that he can’t break through it to get to what he wants to do or be. It’s like a wall, and he can’t get through, over or around it. Sometimes that anchored, unmoving elephant is just too much to get past.

When I thought of my anxiety animal, a cheetah was the first thing that popped into my head. I was like, “Aw man. Why a cheetah? Let’s think of a different animal, something better, more dramatic.” But nope. You’re supposed to just take the first one that comes to mind. So I said to myself, “Fine. Cheetah. Silly, but fine.” 

Then I started thinking. Why is my anxiety a cheetah? Cheetahs are lightning-fast. I envision them just running and running endlessly in the sparse grasslands of blistering Africa. Never stopping. Never finding what they’re running toward. Never finding a lush respite from the blazing sun and cracked, dry earth. Running, no matter how desperate, hungry, sick or weary they are. I realized that’s exactly what it feels like when I’m anxious. My mind races a million miles an hour, jetting through all the scenarios, all the things that could go wrong, all my worries. It never stops. It’s endless, relentless, dry and desperate. Just like a cheetah’s pressured journey.

I once heard Robert Holden, a British psychologist who studies happiness, say that anxiety is just a spot that needs a little extra love. When we feel anxious, it’s a signal that we need to give that part of ourselves some extra TLC.

Here’s what that looks like:

I told my sweet Ella that when she feels her anxiety fox lurking, she needs to give it some love and tenderness. I asked her how she can show her fox some love. She said when the fox comes out and surprises her with its anxiety, her response can be to cradle it, stroke its fur, show it that everything is OK and it is loved. It doesn’t have to be nervous and scared. She is in charge, she is safe and she is capable of dealing with stress.

My daughter loves this technique. She loves it because it is personal to her; the fox is her own anxiety animal, no one else’s. She loves it because it’s concrete. She can understand and envision her fox. She knows how to pick it up and comfort it when it sneaks up on her.

I thought about my cheetah. When I get anxious, I feel frantic and fractured mentally and emotionally. I envisioned putting a collar and leash on my cheetah, and when he starts to run, I gently pull him to my side and he sits beside me calmly. I’m in charge. He will listen to me. No more ridiculous running. He can still exist; he is a part of me and that’s OK. It’s OK to have anxiety. But it doesn’t need to be in charge and run my life. I will tell it what to do and when. So, I take my cheetah by the leash and tell him to “sit.”

When Alex’s elephant is looming, he decided he can lead it to water. He can give his anxiety elephant what it needs to feel like it can move and relax. It doesn’t need to be a block to what Alex wants to do or who he wants to be; instead, he can even ride the elephant! He can climb up that beautiful animal and sit on top of it on a blanket made of jewels to tell it where he wants to go. His elephant can be a tool to get him where he wants to be in life. 

Sometimes what we consider our greatest “faults” or “weaknesses” are actually our most incredible gifts if we reframe them in a positive way and learn about what they can do for us. 

We got Ella a stuffed fox for Christmas, and she named him “Leo.” Leo is the most gorgeous, soft, huggable fox you’ve ever seen. When Ella feels anxious, we talk about how Leo needs some extra love. It’s our code phrase — we can say it anywhere and no one will know what we’re talking about. It’s easier than saying out loud for all to hear, “I’m feeling anxious!” When Ella feels anxious, I remind her to think of Leo. How Leo needs a snuggle. He just needs some love to show him it’s OK to relax, he is safe; Ella is safe and in charge.

This is a wonderful tool for all of us who live with anxiety, no matter our age. It helps to understand and connect with our anxiety as a concrete entity, and then we can find ways to love that little spot in ourselves that is fragile and in need of reassurance.

Getty Images photo via Grandfailure

Originally published: March 16, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home