30 May 2014

Managing anxiety to keep the world open

Recently I went to the pool with my three year old son. He wanted to be brave and jump off the diving board.  My wife guided him along the side until the diving board went past the edge of the pool. He then slowly tip-toed out to the edge of the diving board, and I was in the pool waiting for him to jump in. When he went to jump, he got spooked as he felt the spring in the diving board. Panic sunk in, and attempts at encouraging him to jump in the pool didn’t work. He slowly made his way back off the diving board and said, “I just wasn’t brave enough.”

He wanted to try again later, and made it almost to the edge, but still didn’t jump. With his mom and me encouraging him, he kept trying again and again, but each time he went up on the diving board, the shorter and shorter he went on the diving board, to the point where he didn’t want to try at all.

I liken this to anxiety. That he had good intentions of achieving a goal, but his fear, albeit in this case an expected fear of heights for his age, prevented him from reaching it.

This is when anxiety can become scary for the individual and for parents: that the world of an anxious person gets smaller and smaller, and the trips into the world are shorter and shorter.

Sometimes, when it comes to pressing someone with anxiety, fears and worries, to do something that they just can’t in the moment, and after several attempts they can’t do it, to take a break. Have a break to take a step back, to take a breath or two, and to regain energy. It’s similar to if someone broke their foot in a car accident, we wouldn’t expect them to start walking and driving immediately. There needs to be time to heal, and regain trust that the foot will work again.

I understand that no parent wants to see their child suffer, so it may be natural to avoid things that cause anxious moments, for example not letting my son near a diving board, but avoiding anxiety inducing things doesn’t help people overcome or manage their anxiety. It only makes their world smaller and smaller. To manage anxiety there needs to be the achievement of smaller steps before tackling a big scary task. To continue with my example, a small step may be jumping off the edge of the pool into the deep end is a start, to build his way up to the diving board. Visualizations can also be beneficial.

An important piece is to celebrate, regardless of the outcome, when the large task is tried again. But the most important part is to be alongside and coach your child, or yourself, through the anxious moment. It will be hard, but with the proper amount of preparation and loving support, it is possible to overcome fears and worries.