Anxiety seems to be very much on the up. I don’t think this is overly surprising. The world seems to be getting a lot less emotionally gentle. It seems more individualistic, faster-paced, more competitive, less community orientated, less reflective and there seems to be a lack of patience and empathy (which equates to taking time to understand others). We also have distilled global news full of shocking, inhumane injustices, available at finger-point and we have a sense of not really being able to do very much about any of it. We have the negative impact of social media: the agitation of incessant dopamine hits, the sense everyone else is having a better time and the occasional hostile, futile and polarising debates that leave people reeling. Additionally, in many workplaces, it’s easy to feel like an insignificant number in a data crunching, paperwork obsessed, over-monitored world that is barking totally up the wrong tree. And we have a whole heap of uncertainty, about the future. Anxiety is all about uncertainty after all. No it does not surprise me that people are generally feeling more anxious.
This kind of ‘on the up’ anxiety, I see as a baseline though. Anxiety is increasing as a ‘background noise’ but there is also the other ‘version’ of more acute anxiety: the emotion that is triggered by worrying about how things are going to turn out: the emotion we feel before we perform in front of others, we have an exam or we feel as we lie in bed worrying about bumping into a bully at school the next day. So, if the baseline is heading up, it seems likely the acute emotion of anxiety triggered on top becomes harder to manage as our brains flood with cortisol and our rationality is overridden.
So what can we do about anxiety? Well, firstly I need to acknowledge that some people experience anxiety in the extreme such that it can be crippling. I am not attempting to address those levels of anxiety in this brief post. I am talking about the emotion and how to help a child manage it.
When highly anxious, an obvious first step in helping your child is to discuss what is bothering them and consider if there are any practical measures that could be taken to make the worry of a ‘worst-case’ scenario less likely. You could brain-storm ideas. This conversation can also be about helping your child accept the unknown part of the anxiety. e.g. In the exam example, we can revise as hard as we can (a practical measure) but we could never know the questions that are going to come up and how we will react to them (accepting the unknown). When highly anxious, there’s also some value in allowing some time to ruminate but then ‘parking’ the worry. I see this as a reactive tool for processing anxiety but I also think there are some longer term, preventative measures which I will now describe.
Firstly, I think part of helping a child understand anxiety is about them knowing that lots of our emotions evolved for survival but are now not needed nearly as much, if at all. We have not evolved out of them because this takes millions of years. So for example, the fear linked to anxiety – whether the sabre toothed tiger is an imagined threat or actually just around the corner about to pounce– once kept us on high alert so we did not get eaten. We survived! However the fear of failing an exam that causes us anxiety is no longer a matter of survival but our silly brain cannot discern that. The anxiety is real but the threat is no longer about getting eaten.
Another lesson about managing anxiety comes from the Stoics. When someone is anxious, we tend to offer consoling words such as ‘it’ll be OK’ or ‘you’ll be fine.’ Well firstly, we cannot guarantee this and secondly, this does not comfort the part of the mind that knows perfectly well that you might fail your exam or mess up a performance. A lesson from the Stoics is to, as an automatic process, become used to facing the worst-case scenario and considering the contingency plan for that. This will offer more comfort ultimately than denying the risk that it could all go wrong: the risk that is triggering the anxiety. This might sound very pessimistic, but overall I think this process can ultimately mean you end up being able to transcend petty worries and ‘sweat the small stuff’ a lot less. Also. occasionally the worst-case scenario can turn out to be far less disastrous than you first thought, which can allow you to have a laugh at your over-reaction!
Lastly, another proactive step in addressing anxiety is about helping your child work out how to self-soothe. (This is often where adults can go awry with unhealthy coping strategies such as alcohol or food – for example!) Our brains can find a ‘calm place’ when we give it the opportunity. Self-soothing generally is about finding ways to access the calmed brain and I am pretty sure this gets better with practice. When we have practised a lot, we are more easily able to access this calm space and this gives us some protection against anxiety. Activities such as going for a walk with an observational focus, making something mindfully, meditation, yoga, talking with a friend, losing yourself in creative flow or any activity that takes you completely into the moment. We can easily ignore those methods as they are time-consuming or we might not believe in them but I see them as the best ways to tame our ‘not-overly-fit-for-managing-anxiety’ minds. And my suspicion is that becoming better at this has a beneficial impact on both the increasing background anxiety and the more acute version.