Anxiety, Avoidance, and How to Retrain Your Amazing Brain

Sometimes anxiety can drive you to avoid things that are worth avoiding, but then there are the other times when it drives you away from the things that would be brilliant for you. Understand why, and learn a technique to retrain your magnificent brain so you can expand your world and move more bravely into it.

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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I’m so excited for this! I’m coming back to Perth in February for another parent talk on 'Strengthening Children and Teens Against Anxiety'. Here’s the when and the where:

⏰ 6:30-8:30pm | 📆 Wed 22 Feb 2023
📍 Peter Moyes Anglican Community School, #mindarie

For tickets or more info google:

Parenting Connection WA Karen Young anxiety Mindarie Perth

💜 Thanks to @ngalaraisinghappiness for hosting this event.

#supportingwaparents #parentingwa
Let them know …

Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️

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