Thinking About Anxiety

This is my first blog.  I’ve read blogs.  I’ve even made comments about blog entries.  This “interactivity,” according to Wikipedia, is a distinguishing feature of a blog.  I suppose a blog writer could assess the success of his own writing based on how many people commented on his blog.  I don’t think I will do that.  But I think you can tell from this introductory paragraph that I have a little anxiety about using this new format, and anxiety is my real topic of interest (not the blog itself).

I believe that our society has a primitive understanding about anxiety.  We look at anxious feelings as bad feelings, feelings to be avoided at all costs and purged as soon as they appear.  I agree that anxiety can be paralyzing—watch one of our students refuse to step into a hallway for fear of encountering a strange noise, or another wash his hands over and over again as a way of restoring calm and order, and you will see the challenge of real anxiety.

But anxiety, like pain, is an important signal.  When we feel anxious, our senses are telling us that we need to be paying extra attention.  Our brain is putting us on high alert.  For short durations, this can be an excellent survival tool, as our adrenaline runs high and our senses are sharpened, sometimes to an insane degree.  Anxiety is one of many necessary tools in our brain’s toolbox.  This means that emotional maturity comes in part from learning how to live with anxiety, not just in learning how to avoid it.

How do we learn to live with anxiety?  In typical development, we learn to do this by going through thousands of experiences (with helping, communicating partners) that give us lots of practice.  As infants and toddlers we have moments of being hungry with no bottle, of not seeing mommy when we want comfort, of being a little cold, of being a little sick and unable to sleep, of losing our cuddly toy or our security blanket, and on and on.  Parents and caregivers support children by “co-regulating”—that is, helping them to stay reasonably calm so they can problem-solve together.

As we get older, we engage in pretend play (house with dolls, war games, and everything in between), actually creating scenarios that generate fear, anxiety, anger, and a whole range of real human feelings.   In general, parents can support their children by not fixing problems that arise too quickly, instead focusing on soothing an anxious or upset child so that he or she can gradually begin to function better—while still having the anxious feeling.  As the child gets better at managing the anxiety, that heightened, tense feeling will gradually become the engine of creative problem-solving.  (Whoever invented the overcoat must have, at some point, gotten tired of feeling cold.)

What about atypical development?  There are some complicating factors, for sure.  First, irregular sensory processing can lead a child to have far too much anxiety far too often.  It’s just too hard to stay calm, regulated, and interactive when your sensory system is so oversensitive.  Individuals with these kinds of challenges need lots of help in reducing the sensitivity (e.g., sensory integration therapy, lots of physical activity, sometimes medication).  They also need lots of adjustments to their environment to make it easier for them to get the full range of interactive experiences that their typical peers are getting.  This might mean smaller class sizes, crash cushions, swings, fidget toys, movement breaks, and much, much more.

Second, individuals with extreme anxiety often have relatively weak visual-spatial information processing—in particular the ability to visualize ideas and hold flexible, visual images in their head.  Communicating partners can help individuals with weak visualizing skills by engaging in lots of activities that exercise this ability—scavenger hunts, charades, visualing & verbalizing activities, and many more.

Finally, they need lots of extra support in becoming, and remaining, interactive.  This is where floortime comes in, with helping partners supporting the child in opening and closing lots and lots of circles of communication so he or she gets all those necessary affective experiences.

I am just touching on this subject, though it is such an important one.  I could go on and on—though I am anxious that you’ll think the blog entry is too long.

I’m interested to hear from people about their experiences learning to manage anxiety, and/or supporting their children in learning to manage their anxiety.  If you have anxiety about posting to the blog, just push on through it.  I did.

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