Having a child with special needs often comes with extra obstacles (like we need more hurdles!?). Along with the primary diagnosis, co-morbid disorders can tag along for the ride – it's a package deal. For those on the Autism Spectrum, a fairly common co-morbid disorder is anxiety. As parents and advocates for children with special needs, our primary instinct is to help. To soften the struggle. To lighten the load. So, if a child is suffering with anxiety, our gut tells us to help make this anxiety go away.
While it may be incredibly difficult for us to stop trying to fix the problem of anxiety, it might benefit all parties involved if we just let the anxiety be. This might sound strange, to just sit back and let anxiety do its thing (because we all know how uncomfortable that can be), but what if trying to fix anxiety isn’t the solution? What if the solution is to embrace it, to change how we think about it, and to channel it into something more productive?
Sarah Wilson, (a journalist, entrepreneur, and the New York Times best-selling author) recently published an article about how re-framing the way we deal with anxiety can liberate us from the struggle. The idea is that rather than living with anxiety and trying to manage it, maybe we can make things a bit more simple – and learn to thrive with it. Wilson explains her “deep belief that the fretful, grasping, thought-cascading buzz at my core might just have a wonderful purpose.” So, what might that purpose be for a child dealing with anxiety? Wilson’s advice is to minimize the battle, and re-cast it into a beautiful enabling tool. In other words, anxiety becomes a super-power.
Pretty cool, right? So, how can you challenge the way your child reacts to anxiety, and re-direct them to use their newfound super-hero powers?
Go for a walk. Take advantage of an easy and simple way to defuse anxiety and go for a walk. Studies show that walking is one of the most effective ways to manage anxiety. “When we’re anxious, the surging stress hormones have nowhere to go, so they build up. Movement is anxiety’s outlet, metabolizing excessive stress hormones. Studies show a 20-30-minute walk, five times a week, will make people less anxious.” If your child feels anxiety coming on, try a quick walk around the block. If a walk isn’t possible, try jumping jacks, or another form of movement.
Knowledge is power and comfort. Explain the basics of a panic attack to your child. Being inside a panic attack can feel terrifying. The physical and emotional symptoms can blend together and can feel scary and unending. It’s important that you child understands that a panic attack generally only lasts 20-30 min. So, this yucky feeling they are experiencing is temporary. Soon enough, it will go away, and they will start to feel better. If you child is old enough, talk about how our body naturally responds to the physical symptoms of anxiety. When faced with a threat, our body uses “fight or flight” to deal with the experience. So, if our brain thinks something bad is happening (anxiety), our body responds with things like a pounding heart, dizziness, nausea, etc. to deal with the situation. The 20-30 minutes of panic gives us enough time to fight the perceived threat (to stay and fight, or to run away). When we know that this feeling will last only 20-30 minutes, it’s easier to manage. “It’s just a bunch of reactions, right? Reactions won’t kill us!”
Reduce the amount of decision making. Wilson found that the most popular way to reduce anxiety amoung entrepreneurs and creatives was simply to eliminate some daily decisions. The decision-making part of the brain is very closely linked to the part of the brain that controls anxiety. This means that when we are anxious, we can’t make decisions, and making decisions makes us more anxious. Try having your child pick out their school clothes the night before. Talk about what they will have for breakfast. Decide together what will be packed in their lunch. Decide ahead of time who they will sit with at lunch, who they will play with at recess, what they will do after school. Planning ahead, and eliminating the need for so many decisions, can mean less anxiety, more creativity, and more focus for the day ahead. “Behavioral psychologists call it dropping “certainty anchors.” Drop as many as you can and they can hold you firmly so that you can flap about as creatively — or anxiously— as required.”
Get excited about it! “Harvard University researchers found simply saying “I’m excited” out loud may reframe anxiety into excitement, which in turn, improved performance during anxiety-inducing activities.” Anxiety and excitement release the same type of response in our brains. Knowing this, we can create a change in the way we think. Essentially, we can trick ourselves into thinking we are excited rather than anxious. So, when your child is feeling a little nervous energy or the buzz of anxiety, try talking about what they feel. What is happening that might be causing some anxiety? Is there a way to convert those nerves into excitement? Trying something new, going to a new place, doing something uncomfortable – all these things can be anxiety evoking. But they can also be exciting! Try tapping into the excitement side.
Play around with these ideas and see if you can help your child re-think the way they perceive anxiety. Anxiety can feel so uncomfortable, and accepting it as part of our lives can be even more uncomfortable. So maybe together, we can welcome it, embrace it, challenge it, and trick it, so that we can shift our focus onto a more liberating and creative childhood. One panic attack at a time.
And get excited.