June 13, 2022
Thoughts on Dealing with Anxiety
By Jan Dugan, Psychologist, Centre for Healthy Living
Recently I came across an excellent booklet for children and their parents, talking clearly about what anxiety is and how it can be managed successfully.
I have been sharing it a lot with my patients and they have really appreciated the clarity this American Psychologist brings to the issue of anxiety and worries. The book is called What to do when you worry too much by Dawn Huebner.
Reality verses Imagination
She explains that there is often a genetic component to anxiety so she recommends using logic to think about what is really true rather than what you imagine might happen (Imagination plays a big role in sustaining worry).
Worries grow from a seed
She likens the beginning and the growth of worries and fears to a tomato seed that we plant in the soil and then carefully and lovingly attend to by watering, adding compost etc Then the tomatoes appear and with more love care and attention more will appear…and then more. They all came from one little seed that you planted and tended every day. When you think about worries a lot, talk about them over and over, you are helping them to grow just like the tomatoes. However, if you ignore them, they will begin to shrivel up and go away.
Taking control over worries
She says that parents can spend a lot of time reassuring, coaxing, accommodating, and helping children avoid feared situations, to try and minimize the child’s distress – but it doesn’t work. The anxiety remains in control. So she outlines a set of techniques to help children take control of these feelings. These approaches work just as well for adults as they do for young people.
These techniques are based on 3 cognitive principles – Containment, Externalization and Competing Demands.
The first is Containment. eg if we have a litre of milk on the bench, the milk is tidily contained and causes no problems, but if it tips over, it is very messy and takes a lot of time to mop up! Similarly with worries, she says how important it is to spend less time on worries. She suggests creating an imaginary Worry Box. a strong box that has a good lock and if a worry pops up, put it in the Worry Box and get busy with something else. You are not allowed to spend time thinking about them at any other time in the day. In this you are taking control, being the Boss and deciding what you will think and what you won’t. Then set up a Worry time where you can sit down with Mum and Dad and say whatever you want about your worries. This Worry Time should last about 15 minutes. Sometimes when 7pm comes, you have forgotten what it was you were worried about in the morning, and so this time just becomes chat time with Mum and Dad.
The second principle the author speaks of is Externalization. She suggests to think of anxiety as an unwanted visitor that you and your child are tired of hosting. This sets the stage for exerting control of it. It is not you, it is something outside of you.
One way of taking control is to talking back to worries: Worries are often being a bully and trying to give you a hard time. She suggests drawing a picture and imagining what a worry bully might look like and remember that Worry Bullies lie and exaggerate…they lie to make you feel scared! So it’s good to be mad at your worry Bully – that can help you to feel stronger! You can turn your head towards your shoulder where your worry bully is perched and tell it to: GO AWAY! GET LOST! LEAVE ME ALONE! THAT’S A BUNCH OF GARBAGE!
Even though the Worry Bully is stronger than you in the beginning, you can learn to not give in to it, you can make it get off your shoulder and go away!
Talking back is good because it makes you more powerful! Then get busy doing something else. It may continue to talk to you, it wants you to pay attention, but you pay attention to something else! Practise talking back Say GO AWAY and mean it! Once you start talking back to the worry, parents should stop answering the same worry questions again and again, instead reminding you to talk back to the worry. And the worry will gradually weaken.
3 Competing demands
So the third principle Dawn speaks of is the notion of Competing demands meaning that you can’t be both relaxed and anxious at the same time. So staying involved in something fun is a great deterrent to anxiety. Distraction is also a very useful tool to break free from Anxiety.
She says that when a worry has made your body feel bad, you need to do something called re-setting your system ie doing something to change the way your body feels. She recommends you can do that through activity or relaxation.
Activity helps to to burn off some of the extra energy that is making your body feel strange so run up and down the stairs 4 times, hop on your bike and ride around the block or play ball with your Dad. You may not feel like it but it will make you feel more normal on the inside. Talk back to the worry and then get moving!
Relaxation is re-setting the system in a quieter way. Doing physical relaxation relaxes the body and then you can change the channel in your brain. In our book Helping Children Relax, we have given several different approaches to relaxation that will make you feel really good on the inside.
Keeping Worries away
Dawn then speaks of how you can keep worries away, because they have a way of sneaking back up on you!
Taking good care of yourself through diet and good sleep and keeping the body strong with daily exercise helps with the stress that can make us more tired and grumpy. It is also good to keep strong in your mind. One way is to know that you are good at something like making friends, or getting excellent marks in maths, or singing nicely. Knowing there are some things you are good at helps you feel more confident that you can learn to be good at fighting worries.
And finally, use your imagination to see yourself as the kind of person who isn’t bothered by worries, strong enough to tell your worries to go away.
Jan Dugan, Counselling Psychologist CFHL Warwick
Huebner, D (2002) What to do when you worry too much. Magination Press Washington
Gudkovs J., Dugan J (2016) Helping Children Relax. THE Foundation Queensland
Dugan J, Gudkovs J (2016) The Focused Child. THE Foundation, Queensland, Australia