Are you a worrier? Do you find yourself going over things in your mind, constantly wondering how things will turn out, if you’ll be okay? This is anxiety. Anxiety is our body’s way of signaling danger- it triggers our fight or flight response. Therefore, when there is danger, it serves the purpose of keeping us safe. However, for some of us, anxiety and worry is excessive. It interferes with our daily lives, making us feel unsafe, even when we aren’t in immediate danger.
For those of us that are worriers, the pandemic can be especially hard. For some of us, our greatest fears are being realized; there is an actual threat lurking outside our doors. While some degree of worry is understandable, it’s important that we learn how to manage our anxiety, and to recognize when our fears are getting the better of us. This is important not only for ourselves, but for our children. Anxiety can be hereditary, by the way, so your child may also be a worrier. Therefore, it’s important for you to cope effectively with your anxiety, so you can help your children manage theirs.
Figuring out your triggers: Understanding what is causing our anxiety is the first step in managing it. Feeling panicked? What happened just before? Is there a pattern you can see? Sometimes it helps to keep a journal to help you see patterns of spikes in your anxiety. What do you notice, is there a certain time of day or week when you feel more anxious? Are you more anxious after watching the news, before your work day, at homework time with your kids? What is it about the situation that causes you to be anxious?
Is there something you can do about the trigger that will make you less worried? For example, if watching the news makes you anxious, limit your exposure to it. If you are anxious about the beginning of your work day- what is causing your anxiety? Will preparing for your day differently help? Are you feeling overwhelmed by what you need to accomplish? Try setting a daily goal of accomplishing three things during your work day. Taking care of tasks we need to deal with can help reduce worry. If there isn’t something you need to do differently, practice calming strategies instead. Try mindful breathing and meditation, journaling, or taking a walk before work to relieve anxiety.
Runaway worries and checking the facts: Our anxiety often results from how we are interpreting a situation. What we tell ourselves about a situation will affect the way we feel. When we are feeling very anxious, it’s important that we learn to check the facts about our worries. What evidence do we have to support our worry? Is your worry justified, or are you making assumptions that are making your anxiety worse?
A worry can enter our mind and then we can spiral by imagining all kinds of terrible possibilities. For example, let’s say your child’s teacher reaches out to tell you your child is behind in assignments. An anxiety spiral would go something like this: “ my child is behind in assignments. He will never catch up; this whole year is shot; maybe he’ll fail, his chances at college will be ruined….”. It’s easy to fall down a worry rabbit hole. When we check the facts, it can help us to see what worries are realistic and reasonable, and what worries are not.
In the example above, your child being behind in assignments is a concern. It is reasonable to be worried about this and to come up with a strategy to address it. However in this scenario, there is no evidence that your child will never catch up or that your child’s entire future is in jeopardy. So, when we check the facts, we can let the unnecessary worry go. Notice when you are thinking in extremes by using words like “never” or “always”. Using these words are distortions of reality and blind us to the full picture of what’s happening. We call this type of distortion, “black or white thinking”.
Black or white thinking is limiting because you are seeing things as being either one way or another- it leaves no room in the middle- no gray area which is where much of life occurs. For example, the thought, “working from home is terrible, and I can’t do it anymore” is black and white. Can you think of any positives about working from home? If you have been doing it- where is the evidence that you can’t? So, a more accurate thought is, “there are many things I don’t like about working from home, but there are some positives too. I’ve done it so far and have the skills to keep going”. Reframing your experiences in a balanced and accurate way, helps to reduce anxiety.
What else can we do when anxiety strikes?
Remember when anxiety strikes that like every emotion, it will pass. Try to envision it as a wave that comes but will recede; imagine it subsiding, or visualize your anxious thoughts as clouds and watch them float away.
Try using deep breathing exercises to calm yourself. For example, try being still. Sit and ground yourself in a comfortable chair. Begin taking slow deep breaths and practice “elevator breathing”. Count back from nine to one with each breath. Then count back from eight, then seven; keep going until you feel calm and relaxed.
Splashing cold water on your face or engaging in exercise can also snap us out of our anxious thoughts. Try all of these strategies to manage your worry.
Helping your child defeat worry:
You can teach your child these strategies as well; here are some tips!:
Name the emotion: Help your child to identify when they are feeling anxious. Children and teens can struggle to identify and name emotions. When you see your child becoming anxious, give it a name- “what you’re feeling is anxiety”. Help them to observe what is happening in their body (quick heartbeat, clammy hands, breathing quickly, feeling really worried). Then support them in using calming strategies such as deep breathing and visualization (imagining anxious thoughts floating away like clouds, or leaves on water). Show them how exercise and even splashing cold water on their faces can help to instantly relieve anxiety.
Teaching your child to check the facts: Teach your child that anxiety is there to help us act when we are in danger. Help your child to explore if they are in immediate danger, if not, help them to figure out what is causing their anxiety? Are there practical ways to reduce their worry? If your teen is anxious about a test, will studying help? Help your teen to understand about runaway worries, and the importance of figuring out what’s real, what isn’t, and the trap of black or white thinking.
If little ones have worries and fears keeping them up; can you talk them through? For younger children, explain that when we are worried, we can become detectives searching for evidence. If we don’t find any, we can let the worry go. For the youngest worriers, you can tell them their worry is like a plant, when they feed and water it, the worry grows, but when they calm down and talk about their worry with a grown up, it can’t. Teaching our children these tools today, will help them to better manage their anxiety tomorrow.