The Number One Way to Make Anxiety Worse in Kids and Adults

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As a mom, it’s hard not to be affected by anxiety at one point or another. We experience it personally and many of us are or will be parents to children and teens who struggle with it. It’s painful!

While anxiety is a normal part of living (and actually adaptive at times!), clinical levels of anxiety interfere with our daily functioning in meaningful ways. It can affect our sleep (e.g. insomnia, nightmares), our bodies (e.g. muscle tension/pain, digestive issues, headaches, appetite changes, panic attacks), our thinking (e.g. catastrophizing, obsessing, worrying, difficulty with memory and concentration), and our relationships, among others.

But if my years as a clinical psychologist (and human) have taught me anything, it’s that one of our most common reactions to anxiety is what actually makes it WORSE. Yep, way worse.

It’s AVOIDANCE.

What Is Anxiety?

Let me back this nervous train up for a minute. We have anxiety for a really good reason. It’s a signal that our brains send to keep us alive. Imagine a cave-mom who felt totally chill when a bear approached her nursing her child. Bear lunch! Over time our brains have selected for anxiety because it helped alert us to threats to our survival.

But anxiety only works when it is actually keeping us safe from a real threat or motivating us to act on something we have real control over, like ourselves. Where our brains go off track is when we develop significant fears about events that may never happen. Anxiety leads us to try to control things we just don’t or can’t control (which, honestly, is almost everything).

Avoid Avoidance 

Anxiety and fear are painful, and pain can feel like a threat to our survival. So it makes sense that one way our brains attempt to get away from that pain is to avoid whatever is causing us anxiety.

We do this. And whether or not they have clinical anxiety, our kids do too.

We avoid places, people, things, thoughts, conversations, you name it. Anything that our brain tells us will be painful. Only not all pain is actually a threat to our survival. Rather, many of the things and relationships and achievements we value most in life involved facing a lot of discomfort and pain.

The main problem with avoidance is that it prevents us and our kids from getting very real feedback —feedback that tells us what we are anxious about is not usually life-threatening.

Avoidance, like not riding a bike, can make anxiety worse in children and adults.

For example, we know that when our kiddo falls off a bike, he or she needs to get back on. You child might not want to and may plead with you to give the bike away and may proclaim to never ride a bike again. But we know that if we allow avoidance, he or she will miss out on all the joys that come with a lifetime of bike riding. Can riding a bike be dangerous? Sure. But does that small possibility of danger outweigh the great experiences that riding a bike allows us? No.

We know this inherently, but we forget it a lot (me included!).

How to Face Anxiety 

So what can we do as parents to help our kids and ourselves combat this type of anxiety?

  1. Validate feelings! Whether or not the fear is in response to a real threat, the feeling itself is very real and very uncomfortable. And no one appreciates feeling dismissed or invalidated.
  2. Don’t reassure the feared event won’t happen. The fact of the matter is, it might. Many parents have eaten their words by making promises about things they don’t control (again, me included).
  3. Encourage your kiddo to do the feared thing. Remind him or her of times in the past something seemed scary but everything worked out. Our goal is to help our kids recognize they can survive pain and overcome fear.
  4. Remind your kiddo or yourself of what you actually do have control over. This is largely just our behavior. We can have anxiety and still choose to act in line with our goals and values.
  5. Provide LOTS of positive reinforcement. Acknowledge any and every step you or your child make towards facing fear. It takes a lot of bravery to do the very thing our brains are screaming at us not to do. It’s important to notice and celebrate how strong we really are.
  6. Debrief! After the fear has been faced, we normally notice whatever we were avoiding was not nearly as scary as what our brain was telling us would happen. Reinforcing this message can go a long way toward developing courage to face the next fear.

Also, it’s never a bad idea to consult with a mental health specialist for help in this process. Sometimes we need a person on the outside reminding us to get back on the bike after a bad spill.

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Laura
Graduate school brought Laura from her beloved home state of Colorado to Texas (hard to beat the Rocky Mountains!), and meeting her beloved husband Jonathan convinced her to settle here. Now the two are overjoyed and exhausted parents to sweet Christopher (2015) and a little girl on the way (2017). In addition to her role as a mama, she also works full time as a clinical psychologist working with military veterans who continue to amaze her with their strength and humor. When she’s not busy juggling career and parenthood, you can find her cycling, enjoying local culture (and food!), baking, “hiking,” and embracing her love of travel.

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