Anxiety is a completely normal human experience, but it’s being packaged as a disorder, as a deficiency, as something to be avoided. We have to change this. When we present anxiety as something to be avoided, we inadvertently drive avoidance of the safe but challenging things that drive anxiety. This means everything growthful. Everything that matters. Everything new. Everything hard. Everything brave.
Even for kids who have seismic levels of anxiety, pathologising anxiety will not serve them at all. All it will do is add to their need to avoid the thing that’s driving anxiety, which will most often be something brave, hard, important. (Of course if they are in front of an actual danger, we help anxiety do its job and get them out of the way of that danger, but that’s not the anxiety we’re talking about here.)
The more we talk about anxiety as a deficiency, the more it will pull down anyone who feels anxious when they try to move forward. It will squash their potential, smudge the way they see themselves, and deprive them of the experiences they need to realise that anxiety is just one part of their ‘everythingness’. They can be anxious and strong, anxious and powerful, anxious and okay.
The key to anxiety isn’t in the ‘getting rid of’ anxiety, but in the ‘moving with’ anxiety. This doesn’t mean they will be able to ‘move with’ their anxiety straight away. The point is, the way we talk about anxiety matters.
So what do we do instead?
First, we change its shape – from an intruder to an ally.
Living bravely with anxiety is about sharing the space with it, rather than being pushed out by it. If we want kids moving with their anxiety – feeling anxious and doing brave – we have to present anxiety as something that feels safe enough to be with. It’s not a bully, or a deficiency, or a pathology. It’s a protector, an ally. It’s there to take care of them but they need to decide what happens next. Do they stay with the discomfort and move gently towards brave, or do they avoid the discomfort by moving away?
What we focus on is what becomes powerful. If we focus on anxiety as something to be fixed or avoided, this becomes the focus. It will keep their bodies unsettled, the minds restless, and it will steer all their resources (and yours) towards avoiding the anxiety and whatever is fuelling it.
On the other hand, if we focus on their capacity to be with their anxiety, without needing to ‘fix’ it, we start to open the way for their brave to flourish, because being brave isn’t about outcome – it’s about process. It’s about being able to sit with the discomfort of anxiety for a little bit longer than last time.
This doesn’t mean we ignore anxiety. Actually, we do the opposite. We acknowledge it and we let it exist alongside their their courage, their strength, their ‘everythingness’ – not instead of.
Then, we change the story.
We humans crave the stories that will make sense of our feelings. This happens in all of us. Whenever we have a feeling, we instinctively look for a story (a reason) to make make sense of the feeling. We need to understand why we feel the way we do, and any story will feel better than no story at all. The stories we tell ourselves matter. These stories will drive how we respond. The feelings aren’t the problem, but the way we respond can be.
When anxiety happens, our children (all of us) will tend to make sense of the feeling with one of two types of stories – either a story of disaster: ‘I feel like something bad is going to happen, so something bad must be going to happen,’ or a story of deficiency: ‘I can’t do this. I’m not brave enough, smart enough, strong enough.’
The story they (or we) put to their anxiety will determine their response. ‘You have anxiety. We need to fix it or avoid the thing that’s causing it,’ will drive a different response to, ‘Of course you have anxiety. You’re about to do something brave. What’s one little step you can take towards it?’
When we change the story, we make way for a different response. This might sound something like, ‘It’s okay to feel anxious. You don’t feel like this because there’s something wrong with you, or because something bad is about to happen. You feel like this because you’re doing some big things at the moment. How can I help?’
We don’t want them to be scared of anxiety, because we don’t want them to be scared of the brave, important, new, hard things that drive anxiety. Instead, we want to validate and normalise their anxiety, and attach it to a story that opens the way for brave:
‘Yes you feel anxious – that’s because you’re about to do something brave. Sometimes it feels like it happens for no reason at all. That’s because we don’t always know what your brain is thinking. Maybe it’s thinking about doing something brave. Maybe it’s thinking about something that happened last week or last year. We don’t always know, and that’s okay. It can feel scary, and you’re safe. I would never let you do something unsafe, or something I didn’t think you could handle. Yes you feel anxious, and yes you can do this. You mightn’t feel brave, but you can do brave. What can I do to help you be brave right now?’
It’s like getting into a cold pool …
Think of the move through anxiety like getting into a cold pool. When we take the first teeny step into a cold pool, our brain will register pain and will want us out of the pool. But we know we can handle it and we know we’re safe, so we stay with it. As we stay with it, our brains and bodies adjust and it starts to feel okay. Then we go a little deeper. The same thing happens. Then a little deeper, until eventually, we’re all in and loving it. We can’t even remember what it was like when we were standing on the edge of the pool, wondering whether to get it or stay out. It’s the same for anxiety – the more we stay with it, the more familiar the brain becomes with the situation, and the safer it will feel – but first, it might feel super uncomfortable. Maybe even awful.
We can believe them, and believe in them.
First, we validate. Validation doesn’t mean we agree with them, it means we believe them. ‘Yes, I believe you when you say this feels big.’ ‘Yes, I believe it feels awful.’ Without this validation, anxiety will continue to do its job and drive big feelings to recruit the safety of another human. Validation is a way to make sure they don’t feel alone in their distress.
Then, we let them know we believe in them. We speak to their brave. We know it’s there, so we usher it into the light: ‘Yes I know this is big. It’s hard [being away from the people you love] isn’t it. And I know you can handle this. We can do hard things, can’t we.’
We’re not saying they’ll handle it well, and we’re not dismissing their anxiety. What we’re doing is supporting them (when it’s safe) in the experience of discovering that they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. This will take time, and it won’t feel okay at first. It will feel like getting into a cold pool. Our job as their adults isn’t to remove them from the discomfort of anxiety, but to give them the experiences to help them discover that they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. This is important because there will always be anxiety when they do something brave, new, important, growthful.
So often though, their courage to believe in what they are capable of will start with ours. ‘Yes, I believe you (that this feels bad), and yes, I believe in you (that you can handle the discomfort of anxiety).’
‘You are one of the bravest, strongest people I know. Being brave feels scary and hard sometimes doesn’t it. It feels like brave isn’t there, but it’s always there. Always. And you know what else I know? It gets easier every time. I know this because I’ve seen you do hard things and because I’ve felt like this too, so many times. I know that you and I, even when we feel anxious, we can do brave. It’s always in you. I know that for certain.’