The more openly I talk about my mental illness, the more that this issue seems to crop up, so I have decided I need to address it. Recently, I was talking to a mother whose child is a young teenager, living with several mental illnesses, including anxiety. She was asking my advice on how to help her daughter, which I just want to say, is incredibly admirable. She is seeking help for her child when many family members would be inclined to brush mental illness under a rug. Now, I’m definitely not a professional or licensed counsellor, but I understand that for some people, it’s easier to approach a friend for advice than a doctor, so I will give advice, if asked, based on MY experience with anxiety, and no one else’s.
One of my biggest pieces of advice that I give parents is to be VERY structured with their children, and to encourage them to do the very thing that scares them over and over until it’s not scary anymore. For example, if a young girl is not behaving in school, and the parents and doctors agree that it is because of her anxiety, I don’t believe the answer is pulling her out of class every time she gets anxious. This only teaches her brain that there is something to fear. Instead, I always suggest that parents encourage their kids to sit in the discomfort of anxiety for as long as they can. Of course this is much more beneficial if you can be open with the child’s teacher about the situation, and if the child is seeing a therapist who can give them coping strategies for sitting in their anxiety.
Basically, don’t create a habit for your child of getting out of situations that scare them or trigger their anxiety. Anxiety will prey on that, and soon your child won’t even be able to leave their bed without fear. I understand that usually the idea of getting your child out of something that is hard for them seems like you’re on the right track, because when they are out of the situation, the anxiety dissipates. But here’s the thing, if every time your brain thinks it’s going to die for absolutely no intelligible reason (Which is basically what anxiety is) you run from that situation, your brain is going to think that it was right to be worried. If, however, you are able to stay in that situation and prove to your brain that there is nothing to be scared of, your anxiety levels will go down with time, because your brain learns that there is nothing to fear. #science #reversepsychology
When I shared this advice with this mother, however, the words that came out of her mouth were ” You don’t understand though, her anxiety is BAD! It’s nothing like yours, you can control yours, she CAN’T!”
Wow. That hurts my heart. Not for the reasons you might think though. I’m not hurt because she’s saying that I don’t understand her daughters anxiety; she’s right, all anxiety is different and it’s experienced vastly differently by each person. I’m also not upset that she thinks my anxiety is under control; I’ve given her no reason to suspect otherwise, and she’s right, most of the time my anxiety is under control now.
No, I’m upset because she is crippling her daughter on the basis of what she sees another person doing. Let me explain.
By comparing her daughter’s experience as a 13 year old, just learning that she HAS anxiety, let alone how to cope with it, to someone who has been in therapy for 12 years, she is virtually writing off any success her daughter IS making because it’s not on par with how I live MY life.
I have spent YEARS going to therapists. Not to the same one… I think in total I have seen 7 therapists, but 12 years is a long time. Let’s compare shall we? That 13 year old Girl has literally only been ALIVE one year more than I’ve been in therapy. Not only have I frequently seen a therapist once a week for 12 years, but I have done TONS of work outside of therapy, things like reading books, journaling, meditating, reading more books, exposure therapy, having panic attacks in bathrooms on planes, reading even more books, doing more journalling, researching the newest tools, buying the newest tools and having them not work, reading more books… you get the idea. I have been EXTREMELY proactive about helping myself, and learning as much as I can about my brain and how it works. I’ve had to become incredibly self-aware, I’ve learned to stand up for myself when something is too much, but I’ve also learned that the only way to conquer a fear is often just to do the thing that scares you so many times that it doesn’t scare you anymore.
By comparing yourself or someone else to me, and what my life looks like now, you completely sell yourself or that person short because what you can’t see is all the work that went into BECOMING the person I am today.
To that end, let’s take a trip back in time shall we? WHHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!! (imagine swirling around and around in a TIME VORTEX!!!!)
Okay, that’s much cooler in movies, but I digress.
When I was 6 years old, I started having panic attacks. The teachers called it extreme separation anxiety, but we really didn’t understand what was going on. My mom had to volunteer almost all day. every day, at the school until 5th grade. It was A LOT. I couldn’t do sleepovers at friends houses because the panic attacks would come at night. I couldn’t go anywhere without my mom because I might have one, but even if my mom was there I still had them. We started going to doctors because we didn’t know what else to do and this issue was getting worse. Fast forward through LOTS of medical testing, I even swallowed that green goo that makes you light up like a christmas tree on the inside, because the doctors thought I might have some GI issue- (My panic attacks masquerade as a stomach bug or food poisoning or both,) and we were getting desperate.
I was back in my pediatricians office, at 15, still very confused and still with no answers. Why after lunch every day did I feel like I was going to die and would go to the school bathroom to cry for 10 minutes? Why did my heart race like it was going to explode? Why did I have inexplicable stomach issues at all times of the day and night, no matter what they cut from my diet or even if I didn’t eat at all. My doctor was looking over my extensive chart, and all of a sudden it was like a light bulb came on and he asked the question that forever changed my life “What does it feel like inside your body right before all of these things happen? Is there one feeling that always comes before all of this?” My answer was something like “Well yeah, my heart races, my head spins, and I feel super scared that it’s going to happen again.” That was the beginning of the answers for me, and it has been a very long road.
So back to my original point: When you compare your or your child’s mental health journey with mine, you are sabotaging yourself or your child right up front. It’s simply not fair. If you were learning to play tennis, would you compare yourself to Serena Williams? Of course not! (Not that I’m any mental health Serena Williams, but you get the point.) You would look at that Queen, say “Wow! She’s so good!” and then you would keep on practicing your own tennis game. Of course, you’re going to get frustrated sometimes, but really, even Serena can’t hit the ball in just the way you can and you can never hit like her. You’re different people for heaven sakes! And that’s my point.
We are all in different levels, places, and spaces in our mental health journey. Why do we feel the need to compare? When you compare your child’s successes to mine, OF COURSE they won’t measure up, and they aren’t supposed to because they aren’t me. They are learning how to cope with their anxiety and live in their world. The best thing you can do is to provide them the tools they need to grow and learn. I’ll also do a separate post about learning to lean into your anxiety instead of running away from it, but the basic motto is this: Exposure therapy works. Don’t give your child excuses for why they can’t do something with anxiety, instead, give them the tools they need to be successful in whatever environment they are required to be in.
I guess, in the end, what I want people to know is this: Be patient with the journey that your loved ones with mental health issues are on. If you’re raising kids with anxiety, don’t coddle them, but do get them the help that they need. Don’t stop at “Good Enough,” because your children should be allowed to flourish, and sometimes, part of that is letting them experience the discomfort of training their brain.
See my next post for tips on how to train your brain to tolerate situations that make you anxious!
*Artwork from Canva.com*