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.♥️

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The need to feel connected to, and seen by our people is instinctive. 

THE FIX: Add in micro-connections to let them feel you seeing them, loving them, connecting with them, enjoying them:

‘I love being your mum.’
‘I love being your dad.’
‘I missed you today.’
‘I can’t wait to hang out with you at bedtime 
and read a story together.’

Or smiling at them, playing with them, 
sharing something funny, noticing something about them, ‘remembering when...’ with them.

And our adult loves need the same, as we need the same from them.♥️
Our kids need the same thing we do: to feel safe and loved through all feelings not just the convenient ones.

Gosh it’s hard though. I’ve never lost my (thinking) mind as much at anyone as I have with the people I love most in this world.

We’re human, not bricks, and even though we’re parents we still feel it big sometimes. Sometimes these feelings make it hard for us to be the people we want to be for our loves.

That’s the truth of it, and that’s the duality of being a parent. We love and we fury. We want to connect and we want to pull away. We hold it all together and sometimes we can’t.

None of this is about perfection. It’s about being human, and the best humans feel, argue, fight, reconnect, own our ‘stuff’. We keep working on growing and being more of our everythingness, just in kinder ways.

If we get it wrong, which we will, that’s okay. What’s important is the repair - as soon as we can and not selling it as their fault. Our reaction is our responsibility, not theirs. This might sound like, ‘I’m really sorry I yelled. You didn’t deserve that. I really want to hear what you have to say. Can we try again?’

Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. What it means is adding warmth to the boundary. One without the other will feel unsafe - for them, us, and others.

This means making sure that we’ve claimed responsibility- the ability to respond to what’s happening. It doesn’t mean blame. It means recognising that when a young person is feeling big, they don’t have the resources to lead out of the turmoil, so we have to lead them out - not push them out.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, shift the focus to what we can do to bring felt safety and calm back into the space.

THEN when they’re calm talk about what’s happened, the repair, and what to do next time.

Discipline means ‘to teach’, not to punish. They will learn best when they are connected to you. Maybe there is a need for consequences, but these must be about repair and restoration. Punishment is pointless, harmful, and outdated.

Hold the boundary, add warmth. Don’t ask them to do WHEN they can’t do. Wait until they can hear you and work on what’s needed. There’s no hurry.♥️
Recently I chatted with @rebeccasparrow72 , host of ABC Listen’s brilliant podcast, ‘Parental as Anything: Teens’. I loved this chat. Bec asked all the questions that let us crack the topic right open. Our conversation was in response to a listener’s question, that I expect will be familiar to many parents in many homes. Have a listen here:
https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/parental-as-anything-with-maggie-dent/how-can-i-help-my-anxious-teen/104035562
School refusal is escalating. Something that’s troubling me is the use of the word ‘school can’t’ when talking about kids.

Stay with me.

First, let’s be clear: school refusal isn’t about won’t. It’s about can’t. Not truly can’t but felt can’t. It’s about anxiety making school feel so unsafe for a child, avoidance feels like the only option.

Here’s the problem. Language is powerful, and when we put ‘can’t’ onto a child, it tells a deficiency story about the child.

But school refusal isn’t about the child.
It’s about the environment not feeling safe enough right now, or separation from a parent not feeling safe enough right now. The ‘can’t’ isn’t about the child. It’s about an environment that can’t support the need for felt safety - yet.

This can happen in even the most loving, supportive schools. All schools are full of anxiety triggers. They need to be because anything new, hard, brave, growthful will always come with potential threats - maybe failure, judgement, shame. Even if these are so unlikely, the brain won’t care. All it will read is ‘danger’.

Of course sometimes school actually isn’t safe. Maybe peer relationships are tricky. Maybe teachers are shouty and still using outdated ways to manage behaviour. Maybe sensory needs aren’t met.

Most of the time though it’s not actual threat but ’felt threat’.

The deficiency isn’t with the child. It’s with the environment. The question isn’t how do we get rid of their anxiety. It’s how do we make the environment feel safe enough so they can feel supported enough to handle the discomfort of their anxiety.

We can throw all the resources we want at the child, but:

- if the parent doesn’t believe the child is safe enough, cared for enough, capable enough; or

- if school can’t provide enough felt safety for the child (sensory accommodations, safe peer relationships, at least one predictable adult the child feels safe with and cared for by),

that child will not feel safe enough.

To help kids feel safe and happy at school, we have to recognise that it’s the environment that needs changing, not the child. This doesn’t mean the environment is wrong. It’s about making it feel more right for this child.♥️
Such a beautiful 60 second wrap of my night with parents and carers in Hastings, New Zealand talking about building courage and resilience in young people. Because that’s how courage happens - it builds, little bit by little bit, and never feeling like ‘brave’ but as anxiety. Thank you @healhealthandwellbeing for bringing us together happen.♥️

…

Original post by @healhealthandwellbeing:
🌟 Thank You for Your Support! 🌟

A huge thank you to everyone who joined us for the "Building Courage and Resilience" talk with the amazing  Karen Young - Hey Sigmund. Your support for Heal, our new charity focused on community health and wellbeing, means the world to us!

It was incredible to see so many of you come together while at the same time being able to support this cause and help us build a stronger, more resilient community.

A special shoutout to Anna Catley from Anna Cudby Videography for creating some fantastic footage Your work has captured the essence of this event perfectly ! To the team Toitoi - Hawke's Bay Arts & Events Centre thank you for always making things so easy ❤️ 

Follow @healhealthandwellbeing for updates and news of events. Much more to come!
 

#Heal #CommunityHealth #CourageAndResilience #KarenYoung #ThankYou

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