Affection and anxiety

When we are small and not yet using language much, physical interactions tell us who we are. Children mimic what they see, and learn to use their bodies in part by emulating what others do. Physical affection gifts us with regular affirmations and proof of acceptability. I’ve seen a lot of things online (so it must be true!) that longer lasting hugs have anxiety reducing effects. My own experience would seem to bear this out, as long bouts of being held will bring anxiety down more effectively than anything else I’ve tried.

It might be fair to assume from all of this that a child who is seldom touched could well be more anxious. My personal experience, of being largely untouched and a deeply anxious child, seems to go with this. Both sides of my family struggle with physical expressions of affection. I know one part of that story probably has a lot to do with serious abuse, the other side remains a mystery. My more immediate ancestors did not go in for affection much, and so awkwardness, anxiety and untouchability is handed down, one generation to the next. If you don’t feel acceptable, and you do feel anxious, you aren’t well placed to seek affection, and so the cycles continue.

The threads of how we got to be as we are can weave back into the past far beyond our own lives. (If this interests you, there is Druidry and the Ancestors). Unpicking those threads is not easy, and if they lead back to the dead, there may never be proper explanations. However, simply recognising that you may be living out an ancestral pattern that you’ve learned, and that what happens might not be a manifestation of who and how you are, enables change, I am finding.

As a child and young teen, I was almost incapable of touching anyone affectionately. I had a fear of contact. I still don’t really know how to seek comfort when distressed, because that just isn’t part of my frames of reference. I was told off for crying far more often than I was comforted. In my teens I made the simple discovery that sexual activities could be traded for, or would create a passable match for affection, and this opened the door to just how deeply I craved affection, in whatever form I could get it. This did not lead to the wisest choices imaginable. Which in turn has left me with a lot of anxieties around physical contact.

Recent years have brought different experiences, and those in turn make it possible to think differently. There is affection in my life now that comes without any kind of price tag. That’s an absolute game changer. As I’ve got used to this, my overall levels of anxiety have come down perceptibly. Where I really trust how I physically interact with people, I feel a lot more secure. Those connections are not numerous, but in the process of working through the recent meltdown, the spaces I feel bodily safe have become more apparent to me. And also how profoundly I need those safe and affirming spaces. I’ve discovered it’s not just about bodily contact, but about body language, how space is shared, and all manner of subtle things about being around someone else.

Alongside it comes an awareness that if I cry, there are people I can rely on to handle that kindly – not to ridicule me or tell me off. People willing to stand between me and the world for a little while so that I can have the space to recover. People who do not seem to think any the less of me for that. Belonging may be as simple as a gentle hand on the shoulder when everything hurts. One thing is clear to me – these are not issues any of us can tackle alone.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

5 responses to “Affection and anxiety

  • forwhomthegearturns

    Once upon a time I was in a BART station in San Francisco. Even from a floor above I could hear the heartbreaking cry of a small child. As I came down the stairs I spied a young father and his youngster (maybe 2 years old), and the poor little guy was strapped into his stroller and screaming in seeming agony. The father not only did not do anything to physically comfort his son, but was actually pointedly staring right at him, making eye contact and doing nothing as the child got more and distraught, and his face started to approach a horribly purple color. I tried to talk to the father, who got extremely defensive and angry with me for suggesting a hug, and told me that I wasn’t a parent so to mind my own business. I eventually had to walk away because I could actually feel my heart breaking just listening to this poor little kid, but before I did, I told the smug dad that he wasn’t teaching his son to be strong, he was only teaching him that the world was a heartless place, and his father wasn’t willing to do a thing to make it better. I’m glad that you have found understanding people in your life, because crying is healthy and so getting a hug when you need it.

  • Éilis Niamh

    Nimue, I am so glad you have found that comfort in some people in this world. For trust that people in this world will keep a space safe for me, I am still working through things. There is the set backs from betrayals but as you probably know too well, when you first come across a genuine person after such experiences you have to overcome much to believe it’s true. But with those gone before, I am home. It might sound strange but they have tought me more about relationships and familial affection and loving myself than I ever learned previously. I haven’t given up hope of finding that kind of unconditional acceptance here. I do have some loving family, who I really began to relate to once I became an adult. Other family members love with strings attached or are inconsistent, and I am outgrowing more friends than I can count. Romantic relationships have been… disastrous, though I will not make the same mistakes again. It sounds like you have truly found a couple physical people who can genuinely love you and you them, (and cry with them too!) this is beautiful, you are blessed.

    • Nimue Brown

      it took me years to learn how to trust, and I’m lucky in that Tom has understood what’s going on there and taken that journey with me. I was exceedingly lucky to find him, and very glad I took the risks there. it always feels dangerous and exposed being open with someone after a betrayal, and that hasn’t always gone well for me, but i’m starting to understand what qualities I need in a person, and that helps.

  • angharadlois

    Reading this made me suddenly realised how much blame our culture places on the person needing affection – rather than on the lack of affection in the first place. What a back-to-front set of priorities.

  • ibgreenie3

    I came from a family where physical love wasn’t shown often. I met my future husband when I was in high school. He came from a home where love, hugs and encouragement wasn’t given. When we fell in love, we showed our love openly. It slowly changed my family. When we had kids, we gave love, hugs & kisses goodnight. My kids learned that their friends weren’t given hugs & encouragement from their parents. I worked in several nursing homes over the years. The lack of love in those places would make the hardest person cry. They give up on life, for they don’t receive any physical touch, especially a hug. All of us long for a loving touch. Lack of love has killed so many people, for without love, we can wither & die. Give love & be open to receive. But give your love to those who are worthy of your precious gift.

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