Anxiety in Pandemic Era
Anxiety and anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders among children. As a parent, I am aware that the most anxiety provoking trigger in the world is watching your child or teen suffering from it and not being able to help them. You might feel shamed and helpless and I understand how difficult that can be.
The good news is that if we learn more about anxiety and its protective functions in our nervous system, the chances are we can help ourselves build resilience in face of our anxiety. Beware that if you or your child suffer from severe anxiety or panic attacks, it is wise to refer yourself to a specialist who can help you with strategies to tackle your anxiety.
Research shows when we see anxiety in children, there is a good chance that one or both parents also suffer from it. It will be helpful for us parents to notice how we experience and respond to anxiety and maybe put our oxygen masks first before helping our kids!
Let me help you understand anxiety a bit better. I believe understanding a condition is always helpful to make the first step toward resolving it. Anxiety is the feeling of unease, worry or fear. To some extent, this important emotion motivates us to get out of bed every morning and do our jobs. It also helps us to run from a danger if it crosses our path. I think it's very important for us to know that biologically we can not be anxiety free! Too much anxiety, however, dysregulates our body and stops normal functioning by producing a stress hormone called Cortisol. Our aim as individuals and parents is to learn how to change our response to anxiety rather than eliminating it because the more you try to get rid of an anxious mind the stronger it gets!
According to Lynn Lyons, internationally recognised psychotherapist and co author of the book "Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents" , Anxiety demands two things:
Certainty: “I have to know whatʼs going to happen next…and I want to control it!”
Comfort: “I want to feel safe and comfortable…or else I want out!”
Lyons explains that an anxious person seeks certainty at all times. They want to be in control of what happens in their lives and losing control leads to an anxious mind. I believe this makes very much sense at the moment during pandemic when nobody knows what is going to happen in a few weeks from now and everything is out of our control !
Comfort is another objective for an anxious person. They want to get rid of their anxious thoughts (rightfully!). Tolerating anxiety is hard and we as humans do anything to be without it. Anxiety can also be accompanied by an impulsion. This is a behaviour that help us find a short and instant relief from anxiety and it brings us comfort temporarily. Has it ever happen to you to google your physical symptoms when you are not well, just to find out that you might have cancer or a serious illness? Often you find yourself not being able to control your impulse to search your symptoms because it gives you a sense of control about what's going to happen next and this impulsion relieves your anxiety for a short time.
But why do we get anxious? and why is it difficult to come out of it ? The science of neurobiology has shown us that this powerful emotion plays a crucial role in keeping us alive. When our brain detect a danger, a small almond shape part of it called Amygdala fires up and our brain's executive functioning shuts down immediately, allowing us to focus on our survival rather than any other unnecessary thought. As a reaction, we choose either to fight, to fly or to freeze. These survival functions secure our safety and allow us to deal with the immediate danger. After the danger is passed, our body becomes regulated one more time and the thinking and planning part of our brain comes back into function. Anxiety secure our survival as humans and we can never be rid of it.
The dilemma is that our brain does not just consider a fire or a dangerous animal as a threat. There are many situations where our brain is overwhelmed by the outside world and therefore it needs to resort into survival mode. For instance people can be pushed into survival mode by being in social groups. They might feel judged by people because of their appearance, choice of clothing or their job etc. The first thing that happens after these possibly unconscious thoughts and feelings is their Amygdala coming into action. It sends a signal to the Prefrontal Cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for execute functioning telling it to shot down immediately because we are put in a situation where we can not control. We can't control how others react and respond to us. In other words, we are experiencing uncertainty and discomfort. In this state, we are not able to engage with the world from a calm and grounded position because our survival functions are in place. Depending on our temperament and past experiences, we employ one of the fight, flight or freeze reactions in response to the situation we are in. We might become numb or unmotivated to engage ( freeze response) , overreact to something insignificant and get angry ( fight response) or start avoiding people and isolate ourselves from the crowd ( flight response). Either way, we distance ourselves from healthy engagement with our environment because our fire alarm goes on.
These days, We are faced with a world wide dilemma that we call pandemic. More adults and children struggle with anxiety because we have lost control over what happens in our lives. We can't control the virus, can't plan for our lives, can't even draw from our usual coping resources and strategies like seeing and hugging our loved ones, attending social events and so on in order to regulate ourselves! for adults and children who were already struggling with anxiety, the current situation might have pushed them to their edges and have made them incapable to cope.
If you or your child are dealing with anxiety, there are a few technics you can try in order to build up resilience:
1. Try to notice it when you get anxious. Notice that you are experiencing anxiety. Notice your body's reaction to it. What is happening in your body? Where do you feel the anxiety? in your stomach, throat, armpits? Just try to observe without any judgment. Being aware of your sensations is the first step forward.
2. Try to bring yourself out of the survival mode and into the safety zone by looking around you and focus on: 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. This is called a grounding technic and it helps you distract your mind from the threat and bring your prefrontal cortex back into action.
3. Move your body. Change your position. If you can, go for a walk or at least go out of the room you are in. Research has shown moving is very effective when you deal with anxiety.
4. After you come back to your safety zone, think about what's the story that anxiety is telling you? Is it telling you that you are weak and unable to cope with this situation while others are doing much better? If you can, listen to these stories and just write them down, without judgment.
5. Accept that it is impossible for us to control everything in our lives. Make a list of what you can control and what you can not control in your life . For example: I can control my words, my actions, what I eat, the efforts i put in, my views and opinions, the time I spend worrying, stating my needs in relationships, practicing mindfulness etc.
What I can't control: How others react, the future, others' behaviours and actions, the passing of time, etc. Being in full control is just an illusion and we better accept it.
6. Try to think how you would like to respond to anxiety next time it shows up. A suggestion would be acknowledging it and normalising it for you and your children. Anxiety is a very normal human emotion. We shouldn't be ashamed of feeling it. everybody does!
7. And finally, just because your anxious brain tells you some stories, it doesn't make them true! just because my child's anxiety is saying that if we go out , we all get infected and die, doesn't make this a reality. We can choose to respond differently to anxiety with practice. In other words, we can learn to be resilient in the face of anxiety.
8.Notice what you or your child do that might reinforce the pattern of anxiety. For instance if the child is scared of going out because he/she might catch the virus and pass it on to granny, we reinforce it if we try to keep them home most of the time in order to avoid the anxiety. Remember, we can not avoid it. What we can do is to have a conversation with the child around what we can control and what we can't: We can still enjoy going to the park, while making sure we wash our hands properly when we come back. Avoid accommodating your or your child's anxiety by reassuring them or providing an anxiety free environment. Our job is to build resilience against it and not to live without it.
If you need me to hear your story and see if I can help you with your anxiety, Please book a 20 mns free session with me here. I'll be happy to help.