Anxiety …. what is it? Why does it get such a bad rap?
Anxiety has a job. It’s job is to warn us of danger. Anxiety is connected to our animal brain. This part of our brain is developed way before our pre frontal cortex (thinking part or executive functions of our brain). Without our animal brain warning of us of danger, we would not survive. Anxiety which is fear, lets us know that something is wrong. Our animal brain then decides whether we should flee from the situation, fight the predator, or play dead (freeze). Anxiety does have an important job.
When we are anxious, our mind tends to narrow and becomes rigid. This is so that we can focus in on the threat. We jump to the worst case scenario i.e, the sound of a rattle snake leads to ” that snake is going to kill me.” If our thoughts did not become narrow and fixate on the sound of the rattle snake , i.e, ” I wonder what I should wear?” wham! the snake attacks and you are bit while you were thinking about what you would wear rather than fixating on the danger that could harm you.
The same is true for general anxiety in our life. As parents when we become anxious about grades, peer group, friends, safety, drugs, sex, our animal brain is in full throttle narrowing our thinking and fixating on the worst case scenario. Catastrophizing or awfulizing the worst case scenario is actually a necessary tactic that our animal brain uses for survival, but it does not work well for us when we are going about our daily activities and especially when we are trying to parent.
When we our in our animal brain, we are fully alert, hyper aroused, with racing thoughts, irritable, and thinking the worst. This anxiety is then transferred to our kids whose animal brains pick up on our anxiety which then activates their own anxiety. What we end up with is a vicious cycle of parents anxiety transferred onto the child who then transfers this in their daily activities. It is not unusual for me to receive referrals for children or teens with anxiety problems only to discover that this anxious child’s parent is also very anxious.
Anxiety passed on to our children creates anxious children who end up in a spiral of never-ending no win situations where they feel like they are walking on egg shells to keep their parents anxiety under control. Children naturally want to take care of their parents when they sense that something is wrong. Children will find all kinds of creative ways to calm the anxiety in their parent, but at what cost?
The cost is not focusing on growing up, making mistakes, and learning from them, instead the child is focused on relieving their parents anxiety and often ending up with their own anxiety difficulties.
The solution is to be aware of your own anxiety. As a parent you have access to tools and skills that your children have not developed yet. You can use progressive relaxation, mindfulness, yoga, exercise, talking to a therapist, or friend.
The best way to curb anxiety is to learn ways to stay within the therapeutic window of tolerance. This means we do not get caught in hyper aroused or hypo aroused states and when we do get caught in these states, we take care of this away from our kids. See http://www.worthit2bme.com for therapeutic window of tolerance.
Simply put the next time you are feeling anxious for your kids, take a deep breath and go for a walk. Tell yourself, I am feeling anxiety and I need to calm my nervous system so that my animal brain can rest. You will find that when you return from your walk having calmed yourself, that you will likely look at the same situation from a completely different perspective. This perspective will not be based on the worst case scenario but rather a rational more balanced perspective which your kids will thank you for.