I’ve spent a lifetime understanding, coming to terms with and managing my own anxiety. Though it continues to flare up at times — after the death of my father, after I suffered a bleed in my brain, after the births of my children, and during all of 2020 — I’ve grown far better at learning to live healthily and happily, even as an anxious person.
In fact, just recently I gave myself a giant pat on the back — a “well done” for having finally figured out how to just “let that shit go” and enjoy the moment without a billion worries and what-ifs creeping up into my usually very overcrowded, overly-analytic brain.
But then something terrible happened; somewhat suddenly and dramatically, anxiety struck my child… and I fell instantly apart.
Though I should have been well prepared for this — after all, she comes by it naturally; I knew it was only a matter of time before I recognized anxiety symptoms in one of my kids — I wasn’t. I was completely thrown off guard, and the suddenness (and gravity) of her worries and sadness were absolutely gut-wrenching. After all, I know firsthand how painful anxiety is — how it literally feels like you’re thrashing and gasping for air under a giant wave that you cannot escape from no matter how hard you try. Your heart is racing, your mind is spinning, the tears keep falling… it’s awful. I don’t wish that discomfort upon anyone, and certainly not my baby.
I was immediately overcome by feelings of guilt: this is all my fault; these are my anxious genes she’s inherited; maybe I somehow passed along a hefty dose of worry through my breast milk (after all, I wasn’t what you’d call a “calm, easygoing mama”…. )?
Then came the “I need to fix it RIGHT NOW” stage — the part where I threw everything at “the problem” that I could possibly think of (all the things that have ever helped me even the slightest, every little trick I learned in grad school when I was studying to be a marriage and family therapist, and pretty much nugget Lynn Lyons, LICSW has ever recommended for helping children struggling with anxiety (highly recommend her — she’s incredible).
Obviously, that was all too much… and unhelpful. I realized I needed to take big, giant deep breaths myself, get a handle on my own anxiety, and learn to accept and tolerate my child’s big, strong feelings.
Ahhh! Even writing that feels HARD. It is HARD to watch your child writhe in emotional pain. It is hard not to want to step in and take all the anguish away. And it is hard to let our kids just sit with their feelings, support them through their struggles, and know that in the end, allowing them to feel it fully, and work through it on their own, is imperative to their mental health, growth and well being.
I’ve since made a promise to myself that I won’t run away from or try to eradicate her worry. Yes, it triggers and scares me; it causes me shame and guilt; it brings about my own racing heart and salty tears. But I won’t run or try to fix. I’ll sit with her in it, hug her, hold her tight and remind her that she’s never, ever alone.
As a kid I was told often that I should just learn to “loosen up and go with the flow” and that “no one wants to be around someone who worries so much.” Ouch. None of that was helpful — it made things worse, because it wasn’t that easy to just stop worrying; I didn’t have the slightest clue how to slow my constantly racing mind and heart. I had no tools to do this, and no one to support me in trying.
That’s where my childhood and hers will differ. We will let her know her feelings are VALID, but her worries do not need to control her the way mine controlled me. She has power over them, not the other way around. And we will continue to teach and practice the very important skills of challenging her worrisome and negative thoughts, of building up her feelings of self-power and confidence, and of knowing that she’s the boss of her body and brain, not her worry (I often remind her to scream loudly at her worry when he shows up, and tell him to “get outta here!”). We will offer an abundance of love in the process.
I said to my husband last week that I was not cut out for this — that my own battles with anxiety have made me too thin-skinned to help any of our children appropriately with theirs. But I think I was wrong. Today I believe that I’m exactly the right mom for a kiddo struggling with worry. It may trigger me, yes, but that’s OK. I’ve been there — I’m there more than I’d like to admit — and I’ve managed to work my way through and out so many times. It is exactly this experience that will help me teach my kids, with an abundance of empathy, first-hand knowledge and heart, to do the same.