Too often we throw around the word anxiety, associating it with so many different situations, feelings, thoughts, and possibilities, that the word itself seems to have lost some meaning and at the same time is ever present and scary. What is anxiety? What does it mean? And why does it seem to be so frequent in our society? These are all good questions, with answers that may seem surprising to some.
What if I told you that anxiety is meant to be a good thing? Anxiety, in a basic sense, is our body’s alarm system. It lets us know if we are in danger or if we need to act to keep ourselves safe. It is actually a very normal, physical experience (fast heartbeat, quicker respiration, perspiration) that is similar to what someone may feel after exercising. In fact, a certain dose of anxiety, mentally and physically, is healthy. Anxiety prepares us, challenges us, keeps us safe and on our toes, and helps us determine what we like (and do not like), strive for, and need.
It is when we begin to misinterpret, mislabel or even fear the experience of anxiety that it becomes a “bad thing.” Anxiety takes on many disguises in our daily lives, from fearfulness, to excess worries, to stress, to panic. Labeling anxiety freely and frequently has become a societal norm. With so many pressures to be the best or better than the best, to juggle as many daily activities as possible, and to push the boundaries of bravery, it is not surprising that our alarms go off frequently and are often confusing to understand. However, we must ask ourselves, are these alarms real or false? Is there really any danger? Often, although our brain may initially try to convince us differently, we are experiencing false alarms, where the dangers we perceive are unlikely to actually occur or will not likely make the impact that we assume.
We must learn to recognize anxiety for what it is: a physical experience of symptoms that can be very helpful and informative and will decrease with time. Doing so can be a game changer, making it not so scary to be anxious, but rather a normal part of life that everyone experiences to varying degrees. In turn, we can better manage our anxiety by making better decisions about whether the anxiety we feel is helpful or unhelpful, necessary or excessive and in either case, understanding that the physical feeling is not harmful and will not last forever. Anxiety may look different to different people, but in the end, it is a healthy part of being alive and can be an asset if used as originally intended.
Practice makes perfect … well, maybe not quite perfect, but it sure helps! You wouldn’t send your child into a soccer game, tennis match, or ballet recital without first learning the skills of the game or rehearsing the part. Similarly, it is important to remember not to expect a child knows how to behave appropriately or use calm (not fearful) behavior for new or difficult situations, especially those that he or she has not encountered before or not previously performed well in.
The solution: Practice! One of the best ways to reduce negative or unwanted behaviors is to role-play or practice appropriate behaviors in advance when the situation is less threatening. Prior to actually attempting the real situation, “practicing” getting into a car seat, saying hello to a neighbor, riding in a grocery cart, eating in a restaurant, demonstrating good sportsmanship in a game, or even making a mistake can give a child a script for what is supposed to happen and how to react. This can in turn build confidence.
Practice can also be fun and creative and feel more like a game than a requirement. The key is that it occurs before the actual situation and the child knows that it is happening; therefore, pressure for performance is reduced. An incentive may also be a good idea (based on participation and appropriate behavior) to make practices more enticing. So the next time that something feels difficult or does not go as planned, take the pressure off and practice first, before you play.
Learn to hear the quiet, rather than the squeaky wheel:
Paying attention to positive behavior as a parent
The squeaky wheel gets the oil. That’s how the saying goes. Unfortunately, especially in our busy and chaotic everyday lives, it is often the case that what gets noticed with our children is the negative behavior, the problem, when something goes wrong. Whatever it is that we do not want to see our children do, we notice immediately, and it becomes the screaming noise that feels as if it has to be instantly rectified. We jump to action. “No! Don’t touch your sister.” “Stop beating on the table.” “Stop wiggling” “You’re not paying attention.” And then, in the quiet moments, when things are going well, we tend to be quiet ourselves, relishing in the smooth sailing. What behavior theorists and savvy parents alike have come to understand is that our natural response, the process of focusing significant attention toward negative behaviors rather than positives, can actually increase rather than decrease the problem, creating a daunting negative cycle where parents reprimand, kids respond negatively, and parents reprimand some more. So, in direct competition with what your instincts tell you to do, try noticing the quiet, praising the opposite (of what you do not want), and telling your child, in very specific terms, what he or she is doing well. It sounds simple enough, but can actually be a difficult feat. Set a goal of praising at least 10 positive actions (or potentially lack of negative actions) that you notice in your child each day – that’s 10 things that he or she is doing well, 10 behaviors that you want to see. “I love how you are sitting quietly at the table.” “It helped me so much when you emptied the dishwasher.” “You followed that direction so quickly!” “You really played well today with your sister.” “It was great to see you keep your hands to yourself when you got mad.” Shifting the focus from what’s going wrong to what’s going right can make a remarkable difference in your perspective of your child as well as how your child responds to you.