Anxiety, Avoidance, and How to Retrain Your Amazing Brain

The Take-Aways:

Anxiety happens in all of us from time to time. It’s a really normal, healthy response that’s designed to keep us safe. Anxiety comes from a brain that thinks there might be trouble ahead, and gets us ready to physically deal with the threat through flight or fight. (And humiliation, embarrassment, separation from a loved one, missing out, not being able to do something you want to do can all count as threats.) This can create a really strong drive to avoid whatever it is that triggers anxiety. Sometimes that avoidance will make sense, but sometimes it can actually drive us to avoid things that would actually be really good for us. The good news is that there is a way around this.

The brain learns through experience. The more you avoid something, the more you’re teaching you’re teaching your brain that the only way to feel safe is to avoid that situation – but, the more you do something brave, the more you’re teaching your brain that even though you fee anxious, you’re okay. The way to re-teach your brain to push through anxiety is with something called a stepladder. The idea is that you step gradually through increasingly anxiety-inducing experiences until you are able to do whatever it is that you’ve been avoiding. 

For example, let’s say social situations trigger anxiety for you. Develop a stepladder starting with a social situation that gives you a little bit of anxiety, and slowly and gently working through steps that increase in difficultly. You might start your stepladder with going out with your family to an unfamiliar place. This might give you a little bit of anxiety, but it’s manageable. Do that a few times until you start to feel that you can handle that. Then move to the next step in the ladder. This might be going somewhere familiar with one friend. Then next step might be going somewhere unfamiliar with a couple of friends. The steps are completely up to you. Do each step as many times as it takes for you to feel okay. If a step feels as though it’s supercharging your anxiety, it’s often a sign that there is too much of a distance between the steps. Just drop back to something that feels a little safer until you’re ready to move up to the next step. 

Every time you do a step, you’re teaching your brain that even though you feel anxious, you’re safe. There is no hurry to get through any of the steps, so you might stay on a certain step for weeks or months, and that’s okay. Take as long as you need until you’re ready to move to the next step. By gradually exposing yourself to these situations , you can actually re-teach your brain that you’re safe, that you’ve got this, and that there’s no need for you to avoid the situations that trigger your anxiety. Be patient, and be gentle with the steps, and you will surprise yourself with what you can do.

 

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You know who I love? (Not counting every food delivery person who has delivered takeaway to my home. Or the person who puts the little slots in the sides of the soy sauce packets to make them easier to open. Not counting those people.) You know who? Adolescents. I just love them. 
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Today I spoke with two big groups of secondary school students about managing anxiety. In each talk, as there are in all of my talks with teens, there were questions. Big, open-hearted, thoughtful questions that go right to the heart of it all. 
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Some of the questions they asked were:
- What can I do to help my friend who is feeling big anxiety?
- What can I do to help an adult who has anxiety?
- How can I start the conversation about anxiety with my parents?

Our teens have big, beautiful, open hearts. They won’t always show us that, but they do. They want to be there for their friends and for the adults in their lives. They want to be able to come to us and talk about the things that matter, but sometimes they don’t know how to start. They want to step up and be there for their important people, including their parents, but sometimes they don’t know how. They want to be connected to us, but they don’t want to be controlled, or trapped in conversations that won’t end once they begin. 

Our teens need to know that the way to us is open. The more they can feel their important adults holding on to them - not controlling them - the better. Let them know you won’t cramp them, or intrude, or ask too many questions they don’t want you to ask. Let them know that when they want the conversation to stop, it will stop. But above all else, let them know you’re there. Tell them they don’t need to have all the words. They don’t need to have any words at all. Tell them that if they let you know they want to chat, you can handle anything that comes from there - even if it’s silence, or messy words, or big feelings - you can handle all of it. Our teens are extraordinary and they need us during adolescence more than ever, but this will have to be more on their terms for a while.  They love you and they need you. They won’t always show it, but I promise you, they do.♥️
Sometimes silence means 'I don't have anything to say.' Sometimes it means, 'I have plenty to say but I don't want to share it right here and right now.' We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety are thoughtful, observant and insightful, and their wisdom will always have the potential to add something important to the world for all of us.

 #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #parentingtip #childdevelopment #braindevelopment #mindfulparenting #adolescence #positiveparentingtips #heyawesome #mentalhealth #heysigmund #motherhoodcommunity #parentingtips #anxiety #anxietysupport #anxietyrelief #parentingadvice #anxietyinchildren #heywarrior #childanxiety #anxietyawareness #mentalwellness
Rather than talking to them about what they can’t do (and they’ll probably want to talk about this a lot - that’s what anxiety does), ask them what they can do. It doesn’t matter how small the step is, as long as it’s forward.
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The idea is to gradually and gently expose them to the things that feel frightening. This is the only way to re-teach the amygdala that it’s safe. Let them know you understand it feels scary - they need to know you feel what they feel and that you get it. This will make your belief in them and your refusal to support avoidance more meaningful. Then move them towards brave.
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This can be tough. To move our children towards the things that are causing them distress pushes fiercely against our instincts as a parent - but - supporting avoidance, overprotecting, over-reassuring, the things we do that unintentionally accommodate anxiety over brave behaviour will only feed anxiety and make it more resistant to change. (And as a parent I’ve done all of these things at some time - we’re parents, not perfect, and parental love has a way of drawing us all in to unhelpful behaviours in the name of protecting our kiddos). .
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The point is, moving our children towards brave behaviour can feel awful, but it’s so important. When they focus on the fear and what they can’t do, try, ‘Okay, I know this feels scary. I really do. I also know you can do this. I understand this step feels too big, so what little step can you take towards it? What can you do that is braver than last time?’

 #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #parentingtip #childdevelopment #braindevelopment #mindfulparenting #adolescence #positiveparentingtips #heyawesome #mentalhealth #heysigmund #motherhoodcommunity #parentingtips #anxiety #anxietysupport #anxietyrelief #parentingadvice #anxietyinchildren #heywarrior #childanxiety #anxietyawareness #mentalwellness
We can’t decide the lessons our children learn and we can’t decide when they learn them, but we can create the space that invites the discovery. We can do this by making it safe for them to speak, and to wander around their own experiences so the lessons and wisdom can emerge.
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 #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #adolescence
The move towards brave doesn’t have to be a leap. It can be a shuffle - lots of brave tiny steps, each one more brave than before. What’s important isn’t the size of the step but the direction.
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#child #childanxiety #parentinganxiouschildren #parenting #anxietyinchildren #sciencebackedparenting #mindfulparenting #positiveparenting

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