Of all the Wonderful insights and useful tips I’ve learned from Natasha Daniels about anxiety so far, this one has been the most pivotal:
To tackle anxiety, my child must see her anxiety as separate from her.
Natasha, my expert guest on this month’s episode of Wonderfully Wired, has been an anxiety and OCD therapist for over two decades, combining her clinical experience with her lived experience of raising her own three kids with anxiety and OCD.
Natasha explains that many of her patients can't get past this step of separating themselves from the anxiety monster they battle.
But it’s essential to see anxiety as separate from my child and yours in order to:
protect her self esteem
not blame or shame her and keep her a victim
teach her to talk back to anxiety when it shows up; a first step towards diminishing it
feel a sense of choice in how she responds to its demands
eventually do the very opposite of what anxiety demands so that it doesn’t call the shots in her life
It’s time to say: It’s not me, it’s my AMYGDALA
To see anxiety as separate from the one who feels anxious, it helps to personify the sucker:
It's ok to call anxiety names: Here are 3 names you could use for the fun-spoiling anxiety your child struggles with;
(It’s worth saying that in her practice Natasha finds that autistic kids resist personifying their anxiety. Use personifying only if it serves your particular child).
The Bad lifeguard
Good lifeguards are needed and important to keep people safe. Bad lifeguards can spoil the summer by demanding that the swimmers get out of the water when no shark is around or never even get into the water due to the perceived threat.
When your child feels the familiar discomfort of anxiety, the hurting tummy or the sweaty palms, avoid saying “there is nothing to be worried about, you are overreacting.” Blame the bad lifeguard instead; “Oh no, it looks like your lifeguard is blowing that whistle again when no one needs saving!”
Natasha explains that different kids think differently about what to do about the bad lifeguard. Some kids want to kindly re-train him, some are ready to fire him completely. Go with whichever metaphor makes your child feel empowered.
The Dictator (or little dic if your teenager would prefer)
Natasha uses the metaphor of anxiety as a dictator in her book Anxiety Sucks, a teen survival guide. I’ve summarised the book for you here.
Natasha explains to teens that dictators are constantly manipulative, trying to plant seeds of doubt in their minds. Once a teen doubts whether or not she is safe, in good health, good enough or secure; the dictator creatively shows her the ways in which the situation can escalate into her worst nightmare. He then “Amps up the physical symptoms”, as Natasha puts it.
Having imagined the scene, it’s hard to remember NOT to panic. Generally, teens find themselves listening to the little dic, as he “Scams you with solutions”, such as avoiding a much anticipated social gathering, or checking for the seventh time whether they’ve packed their homework.
Teens learn that the dictator gets stronger when they weaken and take his advice. He is pleased that they have listened to him and believed him when he said he was the only one who understands them.
He rewards them with relief because they followed his advice.
A dictator, when obeyed, can ruin everything.
Perhaps your particular creative Wonderfully Wired kid wants to name his paranoid Amygdala. In our house, a bit of humour goes a long way to processing, challenging and overcoming the things that threaten to debilitate.
Natasha talks of patients calling their anxiety Bob, or Para or Worry Cloud. Engaging your child in the process makes it his fun spoiler to destroy, not your idea to roll their eyes at.
Remember that the main point is to make this sneaky character who threatens to spoil the day, separate from the kid whose life it really is. Ultimately a child can choose not to make friends with him; not take all his advice without questioning and not make excuses for him.
Instead a child can learn to identify his tactics, talk back to his thought grenades and take back the stage so that he becomes the main character of his life’s story.
More about that next week.