Anxiety … It’s like getting into a cold pool.

Ginger girl in what is anxiety

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.’

4 Comments

Julie W

I loved this article. It’s on point in so many ways. The tiger in the bathroom-anxiety will tell us to get out, move away, stay safe. But the kind of anxiety we CAN push through, the kind we do have have the power inside of us to “get there” is what we need to empower our students/children to handle. And I love that handling it is not getting rid of it. It’s working with it, using it well and let us feel stronger after we work through it.

I am an elementary school counselor. I tell kids as often as I can, that we all make mistakes and we all have times when we worry or feel insecure. I hope I’m sending the message that it’s okay to feel anxiety. It’s okay and important to talk to someone about it and it is so very normal.

Thanks for sharing this!

Reply
Victoria S

True for anxiety and every other feeling humans experience. Too many emotions have been demonised with our language, it needs to change.

Reply
Josie Yarham

Yes, but…

If there is a tiger in the bathroom, and you acknowledge my anxiety, validate me, tell me that I’m brave, then send me into the bathroom, I am not going to survive. For some of us, the things giving us anxiety are hurting us and they need to be changed, not us.

If I am being bullied at school, have a learning disability, am autistic/ADHD, have PTSD, no amount of support or “resilience” is going to change the fact that school is hell for me. What will make the anxiety go away is accommodations like: stopping the bullying, testing for disabilities and supporting them, noise cancelling headphones, a trauma informed teacher, school, environment.

My kids struggles at school to the point of suicide. My son was diagnosed with school phobia. The thought of school sent his nervous system into overdrive BECAUSE IT WASN’T SAFE (capitals for emphasis, not shouting). He needed time for is body to regulate, tools, medication, and ultimately an incredible, trauma informed school where he could confront his phobia on his terms and timeline. As of now he has enough points to graduate and a guaranteed entry to us preferred degree. He is 16yo and needed a different way of learning for his brain.

All of this is correct, but there is a yes, and…. that needs to be included.

Reply
Karen Young

Yes, you’re absolutely right, and as it says in the article, ‘ 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.’

We have to remember that anxiety has a very important job to do – to keep us safe by warning us of danger and readying our bodies with the physical resources to deal with that danger. That’s the whole point of anxiety – to steer us away from tigers in the bathroom, dark alleys, tricky people. We don’t want to push through all anxiety – sometimes danger will be on the other side of it. Similarly, we don’t always want to be turned away by anxiety – sometimes something growthful and worth it will be on the other side. The key is knowing the difference, and being able to sit with annxiety and move forwards with it when we need to.

It’s not the anxiety that’s the problem. It’s the response. We need to decide if the danger is real or not, and respond accordingly. If the danger is ‘scary-safe’ (feels scary but is safe, such as brave, new, hard things or things that matter), we need to respond differently to the way we would respond to an actual danger. Anxiety becomes intrusive when we blur the two, and stay away from things that are actually safe or good for us. This is where the work is for our children – deciding when anxiety is a stop sign, and when it’s a warning.♥️

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join our newsletter

We would love you to follow us on Social Media to stay up to date with the latest Hey Sigmund news and upcoming events.

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

Separation anxiety can come with a tail whip - not only does it swipe at kids, but it will so often feel brutal for their important adults too.

If your child struggle to separate at school, or if bedtimes tougher than you’d like them to be, or if ‘goodbye’ often come with tears or pleas to stay, or the ‘fun’ from activities or play dates get lost in the anxiety of being away from you, I hear you.

There’s a really good reason for all of these, and none of them have anything to do with your parenting, or your child not being ‘brave enough’. Promise. And I have something for you. 

My 2 hour on-demand separation anxiety webinar is now available for purchase. 

This webinar is full of practical, powerful strategies and information to support your young person to feel safer, calmer, and braver when they are away from you. 

We’ll explore why separation anxiety happens and powerful strategies you can use straight away to support your child. Most importantly, you’ll be strengthening them in ways that serve them not just for now but for the rest of their lives.

Access to the recording will be available for 30 days from the date of purchase.

Link to shop in bio. 

https://www.heysigmund.com/products/separation-anxiety-how-to-build-their-brave/
The more we treat anxiety as a problem, or as something to be avoided, the more we inadvertently turn them away from the safe, growthful, brave things that drive it. 

On the other hand, when we make space for anxiety, let it in, welcome it, be with it, the more we make way for them to recognise that anxiety isn’t something they need to avoid. They can feel anxious and do brave. 

As long as they are safe, let them know this. Let them see you believing them that this feels big, and believing in them, that they can handle the big. 

‘Yes this feels scary. Of course it does - you’re doing something important/ new/ hard. I know you can do this. How can I help you feel brave?’♥️
I’ve loved working with @sccrcentre over the last 10 years. They do profoundly important work with families - keeping connections, reducing clinflict, building relationships - and they do it so incredibly well. @sccrcentre thank you for everything you do, and for letting me be a part of it. I love what you do and what you stand for. Your work over the last decade has been life-changing for so many. I know the next decade will be even more so.♥️

In their words …
Posted @withregram • @sccrcentre Over the next fortnight, as we prepare to mark our 10th anniversary (28 March), we want to re-share the great partners we’ve worked with over the past decade. We start today with Karen Young of Hey Sigmund.

Back in 2021, when we were still struggling with covid and lockdowns, Karen spoke as part of our online conference on ‘Strengthening the relationship between you & your teen’. It was a great talk and I’m delighted that you can still listen to it via the link in the bio.

Karen also blogged about our work for the Hey Sigmund website in 2018. ‘How to Strengthen Your Relationship With Your Children and Teens by Understanding Their Unique Brain Chemistry (by SCCR)’, which is still available to read - see link in bio.

#conflictresolution #conflict #families #family #mediation #earlyintervention #decade #anniversary #digital #scotland #scottish #cyrenians #psychology #relationships #children #teens #brain #brainchemistry #neuroscience
I often go into schools to talk to kids and teens about anxiety and big feelings. 

I always ask, ‘Who’s tried breathing through big feels and thinks it’s a load of rubbish?’ Most of them put their hand up. I put my hand up too, ‘Me too,’ I tell them, ‘I used to think the same as you. But now I know why it didn’t work, and what I needed to do to give me this powerful tool (and it’s so powerful!) that can calm anxiety, anger - all big feelings.’

The thing is though, all powertools need a little instruction and practice to use them well. Breathing is no different. Even though we’ve been breathing since we were born, we haven’t been strong breathing through big feelings. 

When the ‘feeling brain’ is upset, it drives short shallow breathing. This is instinctive. In the same ways we have to teach our bodies how to walk, ride a bike, talk, we also have to teach our brains how to breathe during big feelings. We do this by practising slow, strong breathing when we’re calm. 

We also have to make the ‘why’ clear. I talk about the ‘why’ for strong breathing in Hey Warrior, Dear You Love From Your Brain, and Ups and Downs. Our kids are hungry for the science, and they deserve the information that will make this all make sense. Breathing is like a lullaby for the amygdala - but only when it’s practised lots during calm.♥️
When it’s time to do brave, we can’t always be beside them, and we don’t need to be. What we can do is see them and help them feel us holding on, even in absence, while we also believe in their brave.♥️

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This