Tuesday, 27 December 2011

You Can't be Anxious and Relaxed at the Same Time

The day I signed out "The Worried Child" (Paul Foxman) I also signed out "The Optimistic Child" (Martin Seligman).  At checkout I said to the librarian "wow, I have the whole spectrum here."  To which she replied, "well, it's important to learn these things when you're raising kids."  I said, "Yes!  Now all I need is the kids, ha ha ha."  The rest of the transaction was in silence.

Not surprisingly, worried (anxious) children become worried adults, so therapist Paul Foxman has decided to go to the source and teach kids how to deal with anxiety.  The Worried Child looks at the profile of kids who are susceptible to worry (they sound a lot like Highly Sensitive People or HSPs).  It then looks at stressors that can tip these kids over the edge (family issues, school stress, social pressures, etc. - actually, he goes into a LOT of detail about stressors - it got a bit hell-in-a-handbasket-ish).  Finally it's into strategies to help kids cope and become more resilient (from medication to 'natural remedies' to changing thinking and acting).

Now this might surprise you - especially given how well we've gotten to know each other by this - what is it?  third post? but I can be a bit of an over-thinker and sometimes this dips into worrying so I thought there might be something here that could help me.  Huzzah - there is!  Four key points for dealing with your own worry or helping a kid deal with hers:

Worries start with "what if..."  If you're coming up with a lot of "what if" questions (e.g. what if my partner really is a complete monster and this has somehow escaped me?) then it's probably worry.  In my meta moments, one of my biggest worries is that I'll dismiss a worry thinking it's just a worry, when it's actually my intuition trying to warn me of a real danger.  Turns out using the "what if" test helps sort this out some of the time.  You may think that I created this sample worry, above, for comedic effect.  'Fraid not.  (Lesson: it's "interesting" to be Desi's partner, a la "may you live in 'interesting' times.")

Worrying doesn't do anything.  This is my new mantra.  When I've identified that it's a worry, I remind myself that worrying (thinking these thoughts) won't change the past (the past is my usually focus though I also do this thing where I worry about the past being the future - hard to explain, but very advanced worrying I assure you, and it doesn't even require a Delorian).  Oh - and worrying won't change the future - though planning might.  Is there something you can do to plan?

Many anxious kids can't ask for what they need.  Yes, adults too.  It turns out I can be forceful, but I'm not always good at talking about how I feel, or asking for what I want (or I ask, expecting that the request will be denied so I go in ready to rumble which amps up the anxiety).  Foxman offers a simple formula for learning assertiveness: empathize with the other person, then state how you feel or what you need, then you can propose a solution and ask if the other person can agree with it.  Tried it.  Works.

When you're having anxious thoughts or repetitive thoughts: 1. re-label it ("oh, that's my worry about a monster-partner again"), then 2. refocus on what is going on around you ("right, I was just about to make that incision into the patient's left ventricle"), then 3. relax.  You can't be anxious and relaxed at the same time so key in on where you're tensing up and consciously try to relax that area of your body (mine's the gut).  A lot of the things we do: OCD behaviours, obsessive thinking, etc. because on some level we think they will provide comfort and we will be able to relax.  So go to the source.  Practice helps.  

After reading this book, I realized I'd never truly relaxed before (even on vacation in Barbados last year).  It's pretty great!  Relaxing, that is, not realizing I'd gone almost four decades without experiencing it.

I don't know about you, but I never learned these strategies for dealing with worry or anxiety when I was growing up; in our family we dealt with worry like a hot potato: toss it to someone else so they can carry it for a while!  Seems these are pretty important skills though, and I intend to teach them to the kids I know.  Of course, I will use them too.  

What I liked the most about this book was it got me wondering: are therapists just parenting us?



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