Dealing with Anxiety: The Facts That Can Turn It Around

Dealing with Anxiety: The Facts That Can Turn it Around

Anxiety is like a ride on a static bike – your adrenalin surges, your heart rate races, your body sweats, your face goes red … but it doesn’t get you very far.

If only dealing with it was as simple as jumping off. Though anxiety and punching out a session on a static bike differ vastly in that respect, they both have something in common.

Both initiate an automatic physical response designed to provide, with the greatest precision, all that the body needs to deal with the task at hand – or, in the case of anxiety, the task it thinks is at hand.

The most important step to controlling anxiety is understanding where it comes from and why it’s there.

Anxiety is the overprotective parent that fights with gladiatorial heart to keep us safe. The problem is that sometimes, its vigilance switches into hyperdrive.

When something is a threat, the human body is instantly and automatically readied to run for its life or fight for it. This response is the ‘fight or flight’ response and it has been hardwired into the human brain. ‘Fight or flight’ is a primitive response – all action and not a lot of thought. Reason and rationality are quite useless against it.

The human brain has perfected the response over thousands of years. Back in the days of cavemen, cavewomen and cave wild animals, humans needed a quick physical response to avoid being dinner. Fast forward to a time of doors, locks and no sabre tooth tigers, and the need for a physical response is significantly less.

Despite this, the part of the human brain that has been mastering the flight or fight response for thousands of years is still just as active and on guard as ever. It’s blind to the specifics of the threat, opting to act first and ask questions later, if at all.

It continues to respond as though every signal or tension from the environment is a risk to our self-preservation.

Dealing With Anxiety – Taking the Power Back

In the face of a real threat, the fight or flight response would be a masterful, magnificent ally, organising our body with astounding speed and precision to maximise the chances of survival. If it was created  by a human hand, we’d be swooning over the genius of the design – until the time came that we realised the ‘on’ switch was difficult to control, firing up arbitrarily and mostly without reason.

The fight or flight response comes from a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, and it’s triggered as soon as danger is perceived. Sometimes the danger is real but most often it’s not. As soon as it’s triggered, the hypothalamus instantly sets off a series of nerve cell firings and chemical releases to prepare our body to run for our lives or fight for it.

Recognising the physical signs that you are in a fight or flight response, and understanding where those physical symptoms come from is critical and extremely powerful in turning anxiety around.

If you can think of anxiety as the fight or flight response trying to do its job, the symptoms will soon pass. But if you take them as evidence that there is something to be feared (such as the presence of a real threat, the beginning of a heart attack, a sign that you are about to make a fool of yourself) then you will give your anxiety fuel and the symptoms will persevere.

Understanding the physical symptoms is the first and most critical step in getting control of anxiety. So here we go …

  • When there’s a perceived danger a signal travels from the environment to the amygdala, a primitive structure in the hypothalamus (a part of the brain), that automatically and instantly triggers a fight or flight response.
  • The body is surged with stress hormones – adrenaline and noradrenaline – to provide the body with the physical resources to fight or flee.
  • Breathing changes from slow breaths deep in the belly to rapid breathing high in the chest to supply the body with oxygen to fuel the fight or flight response.
       »  You might feel a shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, or flushing. 
  • If the oxygen isn’t expended through fighting or fleeing, the oxygen guilds up.
       »  You might experience dizziness, confusion, hot flashes and a sense of unreality.
  • Heartbeat and heart rate increase to efficiently deliver oxygen around the body.
       »  This can feel like you’re about to have a heart attack. 
  • Blood pressure increases to get the blood to the large muscles of the arm (preparation to fight) and the legs (preparation to fight);
       »  Muscles might feel tense.
  • Perspiration increases to prevent the body overheating.
       »  You might feel clammy or sweaty.
  • Pupils dilate to allow in more light and improve visual awareness long distance to find the escape route.
       »  Your vision might blur, particularly close up.
  • Veins in the skin constrict to send more blood to the major muscle groups.
       »  This leaves less blood in the skin for warmth and can bring on the ‘chill’ that is sometimes associated with fear.
  • Blood flow is diverted from fingers and toes to where it is more needed, and to decrease the chances of bleeding to death should the response be ‘fight’.
       »  This can cause paleness, tingling and ‘cold feet’.
  • The digestive system shuts down so that nutrients and oxygen are diverted to the limbs and muscles that will be activated in the event of fight or flight.
        »  Your mouth might feel dry, you might get the feeling of butterflies in your belly and you might experience nausea and/or constipation.
  • The brain gets busy focusing on the big picture – to find the threat and plan a way out.
        »  This may lead to difficulty focusing on small details.

The symptoms of anxiety all have a physiological basis. They have been called to action by the fight or flight response and each has a very specific and very important part to play in ensuring our survival.

The problem however, is that for the most part there is no threat to our survival. Nothing to fight. Nothing to flee.

The fight or flight response is primitive: always automatic but not always accurate. Most of the time when it’s triggered there is actually no threat.

The amygdala, the part of the brain that initiates the fight or flight response, can’t tell the difference between a real threat and a non-real threat. A threat is a threat, whether real or imagined, and all are responded to as though they are a real and immediate danger to our physical safety.

That’s where you come in.

If there is no obvious need for fight or flight, your fight or flight response has been triggered unnecessarily.

The first thing to do is remind yourself of this. You’re not in danger. You’re not dying.

You’re body is just responding to a brain that has over-reacted a little. It happens to all of us from time to time. Everything you’re feeling is tied to the fight or flight response. In this context, the physical symptoms are perfectly normal, even if the need for fight or flight is unnecessary.

Next, turn your attention to your breathing. Part of the fight or flight response is rapid, shallow breathing. This causes an oversupply of oxygen and an increased heart rate and contributes to many of the physical symptoms.

When your breathing is under control, these physical symptoms will reverse.

Breathe deeply and slowly. Take a short pause between breathing out and breathing in. Do this 5 to 10 times. Take the breaths deep into your belly. Practice even on the good days so it’s there when you need it.

Slow deep breathing is a handbrake for anxiety. Remember though, your fight or flight response has been doing its thing for a while so it may take some practice.

If your anxiety could talk, it would say that it’s there to protect you – to get you ready for fight or flight. Problem is, sometimes it shows up when you don’t need protecting.

Knowing what anxiety is and the truth about where the symptoms are coming from is the first step in taking back charge. It may take some time – your anxiety might take some convincing that it’s over-reacting with the fight or flight thing, but with persistence, practice and patience you will find yourself back in control.

[irp posts=”1100″ name=”The Things I’ve Learned About Anxiety – That Only People With Anxiety Could Teach Me”]

[irp posts=”1015″ name=”Anxiety: 15 Ways to Feel Better Without Medication”]

28 Comments

Ash

I have struggled with anxiety for my entire life (especially social anxiety) and it has become worse since the birth of my second child three years ago. To be honest, I never really knew what “it” was called until I started doing research after he was born because I just felt “off.” I’ve never talked to a professional about it because I don’t health have insurance and can’t afford the fees to see someone. It feels like my insides are in knots and I’m on the verge of a panic attack every day. I am taking Ashagawanda to help me feel more balanced/calm and at first I noticed a difference, but not really anymore. Breathing exercise don’t seem to help. My husband is not understanding at all…he just tells me to take vitamin B, says I’m a bad mom, a bad wife, says I’m crazy, I need mental help, I’m retarded, my life would be fine if I just went out and made friends, if I took meds I would become addicted and only weak people take psychiatric drugs…the list goes on. Clearly, he’s not helping the situation. Wondering if you have any advice.

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Karen Young

My first advice is to ignore everything your husband is telling you that causes you to feel any shame about what you are feeling. What you are feeling is completely understandable and very common. You are NOT crazy or anything else he is telling you. By the sounds of it, you are anxious and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Anxiety feels awful and can be very intrusive but it is manageable. Getting eight hours of sleep each night is important. I know how difficult that can be, but research has found anxiety and depression are more common in people who get less than 8 hours. Exercise and mindfulness are also important because they change the structure and function of the brain in ways that protect it against anxiety. You will find more articles on this link that will hopefully give you the information you need to manage your anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/anxiety/. You are strong – anxiety doesn’t change that at all, and you have inside you the resources you need to manage this and feel better. Be patient and kind with yourself.

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Just a Man

As a man I know that instead of saying “I’m sad” we say “I hate you” and rather than say “I’m afraid” we say “I’m pissed” and rather than admit fear, shame, helplessness, we cover it with Anger.

It’s a horrible quality and I’m not excusing it, just explaining it. Likely your husband is frustrated because he feels powerless to help you. He may want to but he doesn’t know the first thing to do so he’s lashing out to cover his insecurity and helplessness.

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Karen Young

Anxiety makes people worry more, but it doesn’t make them any less capable, or great to be with in relationships. Here is an article that might help https://www.heysigmund.com/when-someone-you-love-has-anxiety/. All of us are effected by things psychologically, whether it’s by anxiety, history, the people around us, stress, life events. All of us experience anxiety on some level – it’s necessary for our survival, but it exists on a spectrum. We don’t all experience anxiety to the same degree or in the same way.

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raisabebita

Please help me what should I do to overcome my anxiety because I experience this everyday. I felt chest pain and my blood pressure increase.
Thank you so much for your concern.

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Karen Young

You will find articles on this link that will hopefully bring you some comfort and give you some strategies to manage your anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/anxiety/. Exercise https://www.heysigmund.com/activity-restores-vital-neurochemical-protects-anxietyepression/, mindfulness https://www.heysigmund.com/overcoming-anxiety-mindfulness/, and a healthy diet are all important https://www.heysigmund.com/our-second-brain-and-stress-anxiety-depression-mood/. I understand how confusing anxiety can be, but it is very manageable. Take your time to go through the articles, and experiment with the strategy (or combination of strategies) that work best for you. I wish you all the best as you move forward.

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Alice

I ordered you book “Hey Warrior” for my 9 year old granddaughter and she LOVES it. I really was hesitant to order sight unseen but it was worth every penny. Her 10 year old brother who doesn’t struggle with anxiety like she does, but does with anger, loved it too. It made such good sense to two intelligent children to whom I have been trying to teach mindfulness and breathing. Thank you for writing this sweet, smart book!

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Karen Young

Alice thank you so much for letting me know. I’m so pleased your grandchildren are enjoying ‘Hey Warrior’. I hope they keep getting comfort and wisdom from reading it.

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Jake

I haven’t been struggling with Anxiety for long but I really need some good advice. My mind is constantly racing about the smallest things, I always feel as if there’s something in my throat (even though I know there isnt) I worry about the smallest things. I feel like I’m seeing things weirdly and hearing things weirdly too. I do also feel trapped to my house because I had a panic attack whilst taking my dog a walk and now I’m afraid to go outside. I’m afraid to be on my own a lot of the time. I do suffer from panic attacks, especially when I eat because I have a fear of choking and I always feel as though there’s something wrong with me. Please help.

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Lea

I have been struggling with anxiety for the past 7 years. I feel claustrophic and have the feeling of something heavy weighing on my chest (almost as if my lungs are cut in half) all day and everyday. I’m seeng a Psychiatrist and taking anti-depressants for the anxiety. I am still claustrophic and get panic attacks. Mindfulness, CBT and positive thinking are just not enough to control the physiological effects of my anxiety!

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Hey Sigmund

Lea, I can hear the distress that this is causing you. Sometimes anxiety can be really stubborn. Keep working with your psychiatrist. If you have been with the same psychiatrist and on the same medication for a while and it’s not working, discuss trying something different with your doctor. Different things work for different people and the same thing won’t necessarily work for everyone. Keep fighting though. I wish you love and healing.

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Clay

This is a great article. I look forward to the weekly emails.

Interestingly, I’ve known that Anxiety is a signal similar to pain as a signal. However, it had slipped from my a priori frontline mental state.

Thank you for bringing my most recent significant high anxieties of life situations into a new perspective.

The basic premise is this:
if you are highly anxious, use these mindfulness (I used biofeedback to acquire better mindful awareness) techniques to calm yourself,

then try to write down the best first cause of your anxiety.

the write down a few simple steps to begin changing that situation to a better one.

take one of these actions each time you feel the anxiety.

this should give you a sense of control — which our brains and minds Love!

And, acknowledge that it is one step at a time and that you can do it with simple awareness and simple actions.

What do you think, Hey Sigmund?

This is what I told myself after reading your article and putting myself into the mindset of Anxiety is a Signal to change.

Action will override anxiety.

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Leanna

Hello,
I love your articles! They are the most on-point descriptions of anxiety and panic attacks I’ve read; and that creates a massive comfort to know that somebody out there understands. I’ve had a few bouts of anxiety over the last 15 years and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but knowledge is power and understanding your body’s reaction to stress is very helpful. I’m also a big believer in hypnotherapy. It’s helped me massively and quite similar to mindfulness. I will definitely be practicing mindfulness too from now on, as it’s very easy to let your anxious thoughts run away with you!!
Thank you

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Hey Sigmund

I’m so pleased you’re enjoying the articles. Anxiety can be awful can’t it, but it sounds as though you have found some ways to manage it that work well for you. Mindfulness is great, and I’m pleased you’re going to practice it. I hope it it brings you even more comfort.

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Louise

I have suffered from anxiety all my life due to constantly living in the ‘fight & flight’ modes brought on by an abusive father, then husband, then finding myself homeless & unemployed after separation. I was not aware of mindfulness at the time, but I sought professional help and I also started to focus my attention more on nature. I took up bushwalking and photography. I have come a long way since then and I have taught myself how to manage my anxiety through calmness. Thank you Sigmund for now teaching me about mindfulness. I will now start doing this too, to add to my bag of tricks in a hope that I can be mentally healthy.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re welcome Louise. Mindfulness is amazing. I’m so pleased to hear that you’re going to give it a go. I hope it brings you some relief.

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Caroline

I am responding to Jo, who is 53 years old…. If you are reading something on a computer it means you are not in a truly desperate situation. It means you have things in your life you need to be grateful for. Once you are sincerely grateful, you can not keep happiness away! Imagine passing on from life and all that you can take with you is what you gave thanks for the day before. Namaste.

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Hey Sigmund

Caroline, to suggest that anxiety can be fixed with a good dose of gratitude is judgemental, unhelpful and ignorant. Anxiety is very real and gratitude does not change the physiology of this. We can be grateful and in pain at the same time and it is not for anyone else to judge another person’s struggle. One of the antidotes to pain is connection, not judgement. Perhaps it might be helpful to turn your some of your gratitude into compassion for your fellow humans.

Reply
Jo

Contd …… I am 53 and have tried everything.Please help with any suggestions. All my pleasure has gone. Thank you

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Alice

I am a great believer in mindfulness, therapy, exercise, healthy eating but I totally believe depression and/or anxiety can be a chemical imbalance helped by medication. I researched for a young, well trained psychiatrist at a teaching university hospital and she helped me immensely with 3 kinds of medicine. She listened to my story/background for an hour, did some therapy and then prescribed medication. After two trips back to her she found the best combination of medication.

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Jo

Hello. I have had episodes of anxiety for the past 15 years. The latest has beeen the longest, 18 months of severe daily anxiety

Reply
heysigmund

I’m so sorry to hear that you are struggling like this. I know how awful anxiety can be when it takes hold. Have you seen a counsellor? Anxiety is generally very responsive to treatment. If you have tried counselling and it didn’t work, it may have been the fit between you and the counsellor. It’s like any relationship – what works for one won’t work for another so it might be worth trying someone else. I can really hear how much this is intruding into your life so I would really encourage you to try that. At home, try the measured outlined in the article. They can all make a difference but they aren’t a quick fix. Your anxiety has been doing what it’s doing for a while now and it will take a bit of muscle to turn it down – but you can do that, without a doubt. Try to incorporate mindfulness, exercise and breathing exercises daily and consider seeing a counsellor. I understand that at the moment it feels as though nothing will make a difference – I get that, but you can turn this around. I really hope you are able to find some comfort and I wish you all the very best.

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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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