Many people who struggle with elevated anxiety often want to rid themselves of anxiety. The assumption their brain makes is that anxiety causes pain; therefore, anxiety is bad. In reality, anxiety is the way that the body works together with the brain to inform the person that there is danger. It tells the body, "It is now time to worry; I sense danger."
Anxiety's job is to ensure that you are safe at all times: it instills fear when walking at the edge of a cliff; it makes you look out for cars when crossing a busy intersection, it informs the body and brain to be cautious when speaking in crowds or with people. If people did not have any anxiety, it would be extremely difficult to remain alive.
What the brain should be telling the person is, "I feel anxious, let me check out my surroundings and see where the danger is." If this happens a few times and there is no significant risk of danger, the brain is usually programmed to stop feeling anxious for the stimulus. For example, the first time that a child rides a bike they may be worried or scared, however, after a few times riding on their own, they no longer feel the same levels of anxiety. This applies to many of life's experiences such as first time driving, first time on an airplane, first time speaking in public, etc.
However, there are times that the brain starts to fear the anxious feeling itself. The person may start to think, "Last time when I tried to get onto a plane, my heart was pounding so hard that it hurt and I couldn't think or do anything. I am scared to go on a plane because then I will have that same anxious feeling again and I will not be able to go in the plane." This type of circular and faulty thinking causes an anxiety that is no longer effective in protecting the person.
One of the most common issues that children and adolescents deal with is trying to regulate their emotions. Parents spend much time trying to teach children how to be safe in this world. In order to keep them safe, we teach children to fearful of and cautious when near fire. We ensure that as soon as a child learns to walk, they also learn that going into a street without an adult is dangerous. We make sure that they know that things cost money and that they should be careful not to break things and not to waste things.
Although we teach many specific instances of what things are safe and what things are dangerous, children are wired to learn and extrapolate from a few safety lessons to learn general safety rules. At times when children have a difficult time extrapolating, they may be overly worried or anxious in situations that do not warrant the worry.
In these situations it is important to show that you understand the difficulty that your child is going through. When a child speaks to a parent, a teacher or other significant persons in his life about a worry that seems to be irrational, it is usually difficult for people to understand the importance of this thought to the child. Laying importance to the child's worries, thoughts and feelings does not necessarily mean that you agree for your child to worry about these things. Try a statement of understanding such as, "You seem very worried about tomorrow's test?" or, "It sounds like it is pretty difficult for you to go down to the basement alone?"
Making these statements in a questioning tone, allows for the child to correct you if your statement is wrong or flawed in some way.
One of the instinctual reactions a parent has when they see their child in pain, is to try comforting him. In order to comfort a child who presents as more anxious, worried, cautious, or fearful than other children it is very important to validate the child's feelings; however, it is most often not helpful to spend hours speaking about or indulging in their worries. In the case of the anxious child, speaking about the worries constantly will often continue the cycle of anxiety. One method that works well is to help your child schedule a worry time. If your child approaches you about a worry, show him that you understand his worry, give minimal encouragement, and then give him a time when he can speak with you about it. An example of this may be, "Jackie, I see that you are spending a lot of time thinking about how you will be viewed by your classmates on your first day of school tomorrow. I am sure that you will have friends. Let's talk about this tomorrow before dinner so you can let me know how it went."
When scheduling with a child, it is extremely important for that the parent is available for one-on-one time when the scheduled time arrives. It is also important to make sure with the child that the scheduled time works for him or her.
Since it is difficult for any person to fully comprehend another person's worries, another common reaction is to tell the child that there is nothing to worry about and that the intrusive and worrisome thought is a silly thought. This usually provides little comfort to the child, since their rational self already knows that that the thought does not require attention. It is their over-analytic, irrational and intrusive thoughts that bully them into thinking about something.
One of the difficulties in making a fearful or intrusive thought go away is that the more you try to forget something, the stronger a person thinks about it. For example, if you ask someone to forget the name of the first month of the calendar year, they will start to think of the word January, although they were not thinking about it prior to the question. A method that is usually effective is distracting the thought rather than fighting it. Often, when a parent will lay importance to the child's feeling while scheduling a later time to speak about it, the child may do many things in the interim and forget about the obsessive thought or the need to discuss it.
Anxiety disorders such as; generalized anxiety (GAD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and phobias are fairly common. If you or a loved one is suffering from any sort of anxiety, there is help. There are many qualified therapist and counselors as well as support groups that address these issues.
For some great information and or referrals for OCD visit https://iocdf.org/
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Charles Sender, LCSW