Embracing Anxiety for Family Wellness by: Anastasia Sullwold Ristau, PhD, LP

Anastasia_Sullwold_Ristau_LargeAnxiety. Stress. Worries. Nervousness. These are referring to those uncomfortable times when something grows big inside our minds and bodies, takes over, and is hard to manage or control.  The good news is that this is normal. In fact, not only is anxiety normal, it is vital to our existence! Without it, we would put ourselves into unsafe situations like crossing the street without looking for cars, or we would never get anything done like studying for tests, preparing a presentation or writing a blog (eh hem!).  The bad news is that anxiety is not fun, can be consuming, and even overwhelmingly rock us to our core. Our natural instinct when facing something uncomfortable, especially anxiety, is to avoid it, run from it, hide from it, or do anything we can to make it go away — and fast, please.  Not only are we an impatient culture for these things, but we are also chronically overloaded with little time to do the very things that will actually help us move through the moments of anxiety and come out the other end a stronger, more energized, empowered human being.

Often, strategies that help anxiety in the long run are the opposite of what our entire selves instinctually urge us to do in those moments of escalation. Even more, as parents, a common desire expressed is to get rid of anxiety and stress for our children altogether. Parents wish to protect their children (and themselves) from the negatives that naturally come with stress and anxiety. But consider the disservice we do our children if we go this route, if we take care of it for them, or if we give them the message that their anxiety is something to be weary of and avoid, escape, or eliminate.  One critical task of childhood and adolescence is to experience and learn from challenging situations.

One bonus is that anxiety and stress often are predictable, at least to some degree. This is a luxury, really. Think about it. It can be expected that a person will be nervous the first time they go somewhere or do something new. We plan ahead for all kinds of things in families. Why, then, do we not do the same for challenging aspects of emotions, behaviors, and relationships?  To wait until we are in the thick of a tough situation to react is not only unpleasant but also is much less effective. Nobody can think as clearly when upset as they can when calm. It’s just not how our brains are wired. Kids’ brains and bodies are even less cooperative with them when emotions are heightened just due to the neurobiological development that is ongoing.  When we shift towards proactively planning and practicing how to recognize and then cope with certain emotions or tough situations, we get more cooperation and can be more playful, engaging, and connective for our relationships.  We can actually begin to change habits and build new instincts. This is a great time to set the stage for motivating through hard times by setting up a temporary system to reward using good coping. Nobody can do all of that in the middle of being upset. Proactive planning reduces the need for reactive, panic ridden, frustrated, confusing or chaotic responses.

Let’s face it: most parent-energy-bank-accounts are spread pretty thin these days. We need to get the most bang for our buck! Our mental and physical energy is best spent equipping children with ways to recognize and then cope with their anxiety in a nonjudgmental and proactive way, ahead of time, before things get tough.  One way to do this is to “externalize it”. In more simple terms, this means the adults develop the habit around children of expressing out loud the healthy thinking process we are going through silently in our minds. Emphasize what we say to ourselves to stay calm, to recover or recharge, or to push through tough situations. Highlight what we notice within our bodies during these times and what we are doing about it to feel better. This is one way to model healthy coping with anxiety and stress. Another way to model healthy coping is to get into the habit of verbally labeling feelings with a note of acceptance of those feelings. Adding a validating statement to labels like “Oh man. Being this scared is really tough!” adds a sense of feeling understood while learning to recognize the emotion itself.

For example, in the car, when driving somewhere new and worried that you will be late, a parent might say out loud, as if speaking to themselves: “Oh goodness, I’m stressed out about driving to this place for the first time! Doing new things can be so tough. I’m also worried we’ll be late!  I can feel my heart racing, my stomach hurts, and my mind is getting fuzzy. Well — we still need to get there, and staying stuck in worry isn’t going to help us get there, and it sure is making me feel worse. I think the signs are there that I need to take charge of myself! I’m going to take a few slow deep breaths to calm down my mind and body a bit… I’m going to tell myself some things that will help:  We’re okay, we’re fine. We’re not lost, and if we’re a bit late, it’s not the end of the world. Things will be how they will be no matter what!  A few more slow deep breaths… there. I feel way better! I like it when I’m in charge of myself like that. Things are just so much easier.”  I know it may sound strange, and without doubt will feel strange when you first begin doing it. With practice, it becomes more second nature. But the best is when your kids start to mirror your words and actions in future situations!

In fact, this works great for all kinds of emotions. Unfortunately, most of the time, what kids see are situations where others are not coping well — the more obvious things, like acting out, yelling, screaming, or losing our cool.  Most of our effective coping happens inside our minds, invisible to kids.  Becoming more deliberate in making the healthy coping obvious so they can witness that, too, adds balance and critical learning opportunities.  All emotions, good, bad, and ugly, are important and valuable, and most are not going to last forever! I am a firm believer that feeling “good” cannot be fully appreciated unless we have the contrasting moments of discomfort. There is value in feeling awful. It makes us appreciate and notice when we feel better!

It is out of love that we join our children in their emotions and support them as they move through the emotions.  We send the message that anxiety/stress is expected, that this is part of life, and that this is something we can and will overcome and benefit from. For the benefit of all, I suggest we shift from the mindset that anxiety and stress are “bad” and something to eliminate to a mindset that anxiety and stress bring value, especially when we learn how to recognize and cope with them in a healthy manner. Model healthy coping for your children. Unsure where to start? There are endless resources online, or set up an appointment with a parent coach, counselor, therapist, psychologist, or other similar mental health provider.  Amp it up even further by paying attention to the impact that sleep, nutrition, and physical activity have upon anxiety and stress (hint: the impact of these factors alone is HUGE!!).  Attending to these factors adds an amazing buffer to our ability to withstand some of the normal ups and downs of life. Lean on each other, and be real. We’re all in this together!  We can embrace uncomfortable times for what they are worth, and know that in doing so, we are building a foundation for lifelong resiliency.

Breathing with you, Dr. A