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What it is like living with anxiety and how I help myself and my son cope.
I have been familiar with fear in the form of anxiety for as long as I can remember. However, there are key tools that help both myself and my young son manage anxiety and fear in our daily lives.
As a child on the playground at school I remember the paralysing fear of joining the big group of girls sitting in the playground at break time and the intense longing to be invited so that I knew it was okay.
I was too scared to ask if I could join and when one of the girls called me over to join the circle, I would be too scared to join in the conversations. I don’t remember being able to make any friends during the first four years of school. I have lots of memories of sitting alone eating my lunch.
I was afraid of adults too. I did fairly well academically at primary school level, but I would literally pray that the teacher would not call on me to answer a question in class.
I never raised my hand, but teachers had this habit of randomly picking someone even if their hand wasn’t raised. Even if I knew the answer, my heart would be racing until the question and answer session was over. And it would continue racing for a while after that.
At times I would feel like crying from relief if I wasn’t called on. When I was called on I would feel sick and it would feel like the whole world was watching me and could read my thoughts and see my fear.
Despite all of this, I loved school. Mainly because I loved learning.
From the age of about ten and throughout High School, I experienced bullying. My life at home was also not much help. In my teens my dad turned to alcohol and the environment at home became tense and unsafe. All of this increased my anxiety. I worried all the time.
I was constantly thinking up plans for “what if” situations…
What if my dad hurt us, what would I do?
What if one of the bullies got physical, how would I escape?
What if something happened to my mother or sisters or brother…?
What if I should run away…?
My mind was constantly busy.
My “what if?” thinking continued as an adult. I would constantly worry about things going wrong and think of contingency plans. I could not enjoy any happiness or peace for long, because it would be drowned out by this sense of impending doom, wondering:
When will the next bad thing happen? Will I be prepared for it?
When my anxiety was at its worst, I would lie awake at night listening to the sounds around me with my heart beating like it wanted to jump out of my chest, my eyes feeling like they were stretched wide like saucers from fright. All this knowing perfectly well that there was no danger.
Let’s just say, anxiety and me, we know each other pretty well and for a looong time.
It is not easy living with anxiety and over the years I have used various methods to manage my anxiety – counselling, medication and various coping techniques.
Anxiety can be exhausting and limiting, but when managed it no longer has a debilitating effect on our lives.
Over the years, I have grown from a child scared stiff about talking in front of my class to an adult who can comfortably address big groups of adults and children alike. I have even conquered my all-time big fear of authority figures and am able to share my opinion in management meetings.
Despite growth, I also understand that I need to keep practicing the skills I’ve learnt otherwise I do tend to fall back into the anxiety hole. And each time I face a fear, I am aware of anxiety knocking on the door and threatening to take over if I don’t manage myself well.
The one positive thing about my journey is that I feel more equipped to help my son. Unfortunately, he has both parents to thank for the anxiety gene (if there is such a thing).
He has been a clingy child from birth and very, very cautious about everything. He has had to learn by degrees to climb up the ladder for the slide at the park or to find the courage to play on the jungle gym.
He would cling to me if anyone came close, even if it was someone he knew and saw regularly. For the first while at playgroup as a toddler, instead of playing with the other kids or even near them, he hid behind the trees and shrubbery in the garden away from them and played there by himself.
At age seven his behaviour is less dramatic, but he is also more verbal and now he tells me that he worries anytime someone he loves leaves the house – he worries about their safety and if they will come back.
He worries incessantly about his pet hamster and whether he is safe. At times he has to check on him several times to reassure himself, even though there is no valid reason for him to worry. He is afraid to be anywhere in our home alone and follows me with his toys from room to room if he has to. At times if he did not realise I had left the room, he would come running through the house calling for me in a panicked voice.
Fear. Anxiety. Worry.
It certainly adds challenge to our lives.
So how do we manage fear and anxiety? How can we get “on top of” anxiety so that it does not negatively affect our daily lives?
Not everyone experiences anxiety on a severe level. However, we all experience anxiety at some point in our lives. And in certain environments, such as a country, neighbourhood or home where safety is an issue, anxiety can be a common problem.
Anxiety can also be something you experience as a response after a traumatic event like a crime, an accident, abuse, traumatic loss of a loved one or some other trauma.
Here is what helps me manage my fear and anxiety and what I have taught my son:
Manage anxiety through BREATHING
Breathing seems natural, but when we are anxious our breathing changes. It becomes more shallow and if it is severe, it might even feel like we can’t breathe. This is because of adrenalin being pumped into our bloodstream.
Anxiety also switches on our flight/fight/freeze mechanism – our brain’s emergency response system which either gets us ready to run away, approach the danger head on or freeze in an attempt to remain invisible to the “enemy”.
Deep breathing helps calm the nervous system and helps us get back to rational thinking.
I have been able to teach my son deep breathing since the age of about three years old by using the image of a balloon in his tummy and pretend that we are filling the balloon with air until it is as big as possible, holding it (for a count of three or four) and then letting it go to let the air out.
We would act it out all dramatically too. It served two purposes: It got him to breathe deeply and it also distracted him somewhat. I would teach him this during calm moments and when he needed it we would do it together to help calm down. He now also uses deep breathing not only to calm fears, but to calm fiery emotions such as anger and frustration.
Similarly, I use deep breathing to settle. I also make sure that my shoulders are relaxed and not bunched up and I imagine my entire body relaxing. It often helps to close my eyes while doing this when I can.
It takes some practice and the first few times it may feel like it is not helping. Keep practicing, especially during calm moments, and you will eventually feel it working. I have found that even when I think I am calm, I am so wound up that I feel the effect of the deep breathing even then.
At times, especially when anxiety stems from trauma, it is helpful to ground yourself. This means helping you to place yourself in the “here and now”. I tend to use this when my anxiety is triggered even though I know I have nothing to fear. There are various ways of doing this:
- Talk to yourself – tell yourself what you see, what you hear and tell yourself the “truth” of what is around you. Example, if there is a shadow on your wall that looks like the shape of a person, start by telling yourself what you see – a shadow that looks like a person, then look around to find the source of the shadow and remind yourself that it is only your gown hanging on the railing.
- Drink a glass of water – doing something concrete like getting up to drink a glass of cold water or touching something in the room (like a fluffy pillow, a hard, rough surface) can help bring you into the hear and now, too.
- Hold someone’s hand or ask for a hug – if you have a friend with you who understands, it could also help to receive touch from them – hold a hand or a hug.
Anxiety which is triggered by trauma, or even by the unknown, can be substantially calmed through grounding. Grounding may also be helpful during a panic attack if you have someone who is able to help walk you through it.
QUESTION it: What is my fear telling me?
Fear is not ALL bad. We have fear in order to help us stay safe. It is why we do not cross the road without looking or touch a hot stove plate or just blindly jump off a cliff. We have fear that says, “This is not the best thing for my well-being right now, abort mission!”
Sometimes this fear says, “I don’t know how to do this!” or even “This is not safe!” When we listen to our fear and then, breathe to help us move into the rational space of thinking, we can actually become more safe than if we blindly responded to our fear.
Let’s use my son’s fear of climbing. He used to be hysterically afraid of climbing anything that took him even a little way off the ground. This is how we worked with it:
When we had helped him understand that it was okay to get up onto things, I started introducing the skill of questioning his fear. So now when he was up in a tree for example and I was confident he wasn’t in any real danger (for a child with anxiety, his “I’m stuck” call sounds exactly like his “I am about to die, save me quick!” call), I would remind him to breath.
Then, I would ask him what his fear was telling him. Usually it would be that he was going to fall. I would ask him to look where his hands and feet were and whether it was true that he would fall that very minute. Usually the answer would be no. After all he hadn’t fallen yet, even if I wasn’t holding him (which I would do if he was struggling to calm down).
From there I could help him think through a strategy to get down out of the tree without any incident.
As adults we can use this strategy too. Often our emergency centre – either because of past experience or trauma – can interpret a situation as “life-threatening” when, in fact it is not. Working through our fear or anxiety in this manner can help us work our way out of panic and towards a more helpful response.
It might be helpful to draw in a friend to help you with this tactic as it can be hard to ask the questions of yourself at first. With practice it will become easier, but there will always be those situations where a bit of help will be appropriate and useful.
I have a few other things to say about fear, but for now I will leave it here.
What are your coping strategies when you are found in a place of anxiety? Share them with us over on our facebook page.
Helping you navigate life’s challenges so you can Live a life of Love and Thrive.
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