Uncovering the Shadow of Fear and Anxiety

“What if we intentionally feed the seeds of what we want to experience, the positive visions?”
I recently read that 75% of Americans have increased anxiety about the world and future uncertainty. The statistic is from 2015 or 2016, not 2017. Many of us could report that we have felt deeply shaken by changes in the world, and maybe concerned about many things about which we feel powerless. Neurologically, any disruption to a view of the world, to what one thought was the known inevitable, can also increase anxiety.
If at least 75% of adults have anxiety, I can only guess that many children do too. Teens report a 5-8 times increase in anxiety and depression compared to ten years ago. A friend’s teen daughter and her friends have been focusing on an inevitability of the world being blown up or destroyed. A seven-year-old talks about his fears for the animals and the environment. A ten-year-old with a trauma history was afraid to go to school because of random shootings. 
Added to this is the chronic anxiety related to lack of basic safety where people live, lack of food and housing security, and anxiety related to immigration, race, religion, and sexual identification. There’s also pressure on other fronts, such as illness, commuting, work, money, child care, and relationships.
The ferocious mama bear in me reels over the fear experienced by kids torn by war, violence, lack of safety where they live, discrimination, and now the world.
Although It would take a book to totally unpack it all, there is specific information that can help us understand, detect, and take action on our own psyches, as well as intentionally parenting our children.
It’s important that we talk about it, rather than pretend that it doesn’t exist.
On one hand, anxiety is a normal response, a normal feeling. It can exist at the same time with other normal feelings, like sadness, anger, and confusion. It’s important to understand the common faces of anxiety. In kids, anxiety can increase normally at certain developmental crossroads. Approaching and reaching new levels of mastery can bring up fears and anxiety as any of us take on the next challenges. 
Anxiety keeps us safe and alert. A small-town driver, it helps me stay extra alert when I am in highly-trafficked areas. Anxiety related to deadlines can help get projects finished. Sometimes gut anxiety might tell me travel a certain way or walk fast and focused. When faced with a new task it might be reframed as excitement, a link that might turn it into adventure.
Physiologically the body is alert and focus becomes narrowed to accomplish a task. 
Anxiety can also work against us. We all know what it’s like to think we see something scary in the dark. The cerebral cortex sends a threatening signal to the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain that warns of danger, and next thing you know the heart is racing and there is tunnel vision. Or, we could be in a very safe situation, and the limbic center is triggered by seeing, smelling, or hearing something that reminds us of danger. We experience the emotional reaction of anxiety. Although safe in the present moment, we become reactive not reflective.
If I see a coiled rope or a night-time shadow in the backyard and briefly think I’m next to rattlesnake, I feel the chemical change in my body, the tension in my muscles, and the compromised breathing. Once I get that it is a rope, I intentionally remind myself of safety and slow my breathing. Eventually my body and mind stabilizes.
Yet, we find ourselves in a world where current events, direct or vicarious exposure to violence, reminders of the helplessness of others, the mood around us, or our own looping post-traumatic or habitual anxious neurocircutry, can literally feed more anxiety. One then lives anxiety and it’s mental, emotional, and physiologic effects over and over, although there is no unsafe situation in the present moment. The brain acts as though there is continuous imminent danger.
The body stays alert. Perspective narrows to a survival focus. Creativity disappears. Choices are more difficult to make. A racing mind focuses on past and future while easily stereotyping, catastrophizing and overgeneralizing. We become snarky and susceptible and touchy to extra stimulation. There is increased sense of powerlessness and loss of control, and inability to focus. The immune system is impacted as well as ability to connect well with others. 
With no fault to “looping” or hamster wheel brains, negative current events, along with our own overgeneralizing and that of others, can become addicting to a brain seeking to feed the anxiety. 
Our intentional parenting starts with ourselves. It begins with awareness about the small things in our own lives that add to anxiety, awareness of our own sense of powerlessness, awareness of our own triggers, and awareness of the signs and symptoms when our own anxiety leaks out. 
I’ve been watching when internally I am stereotyping, jumping to conclusions, and catastrophizing. I am warned to be alert when I lose sensitivity to others. I’m learning to ask, “What’s the message underneath?” And, ”What do I need to do to shift this?”
Compliments of Karen at Hey Sigmund “Kids will always look through your lens, and when they see the pictures of themselves that you see, as someone who is compassionate, resilient, strong and brave and able to walk through fearful, anxious times with courage, resilience and strength, this is what they will see in themselves.” Looking through your lens, they will see both themselves and the world as you see it.
The good news is that the brain is neuroplastic. It can change and rewire. We can learn to slow things down to discriminate and repair. It’s also good news that awareness of anxiety is a friend that is giving signals, and needs listening too and compassion.
  1. Build frequent and multiple personal and family moments in the present. Find safety and security in the present, as well as repeated moments of connection with others and relaxation. Build in circles of support, consistency, times for play, nature, and fun, and regular sleep. Find activities, such as dance, yoga, martial arts, or sports that can help discharge tension and bring us into presence with the body and what’s around us.
  2. Be honest with ourselves, and in age-aware ways with older children. Pretending that pressures don’t have an impact, when we know they do, isn’t real. Children need the tools of mindful awareness, communication, acceptance of feelings, and self-care.  They need to share how they feel and perceive things. We need to help them differentiate between healthy uses of anxiety and when it moves us toward an anxious addictive brain. 
  3. Limit screen time and news time. Look for good news. Talk honestly about the real purpose of news, and the misuse of news and media.
  4. Prioritize challenging, overgeneralized thoughts, assumptions, and beliefs based in the past and the future. Look for ways to challenge negative self-talk. Envision the positive. What seeds of imagination do we plan to nurture? Recently I began to grow anxious and secretly catastrophize about driving I-25 north of Denver. Finding five positive things about the drive…the beautiful day, the visibility, my energy, the clear signs and highway, the drive switched around to become a type-of adventure.
  5. Be curious about resiliency factors to strengthen in ourselves and our children. We build resiliency, or the ability to bounce back from life’s storms, through safe, secure relationships, and learning and finding meaning from life and what happens in life. 
  6. Look for signs of an illusion of happiness depending on the outside, such as materiality, or on things being a certain way. Challenge these beliefs. All research on happiness shows that, after basic needs are met, happiness is really about quality of life.
  7. Related, Note when there are feelings of helplessness. Support children in developing an “internal locus of control”, that they can affect much in their lives – how they feel, their actions, their relationships, and a sense of self-empowerment. I was noticing that I was sitting in judgement of others’ responses. My locus of control was exterior. I was waiting for others to “get it” in order for me to feel good. Then a friend spoke in a way that solicited a bigger positive picture. The next time I will catch my frustration and move to an exterior locus of control sooner.
  8. Encourage actions that contribute to change, and loving, clear connections. Find the power in doing next steps. For example, if a child is concerned about the animals, perhaps there is a letter to the editor or a fund-raising project she can do. I’ve been inspired by recent stories of parental advocacy supporting teens in effectively protesting sexual violence. Use creativity to join with others and express values. I just read an invitation to paint blocks for building a “wall” about love. Get and give the needed support to take an action that can, at first, feel risky.
When there is healthy, temporary anxiety, the view of the world is, for good reason, very narrow. When anxiety verges on the more pervasive, we have got to slow down long enough to find the bigger picture. “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” wrote Einstein
Ask open ended questions about creative broader points of view. The answers will become clear in their own timing. Consider being with the questions on a walk, in nature, in play, or in creativity. Listen to the body.
So many positive  things have occurred that have defied ordinary ways of viewing the world in front of us …the first flight….decreased crime when there has been a positive focus on a particular area……the fall of the Berlin Wall…quicker recovery of ICU patients with prayer and positive visualization…gifts of nature in my garden…the synchronicity of meetings and information. The list can go on and on. There is much that has eluded the predicted “known”, and provided surprise in positive ways.  
What if we keep lists, even of little things, that defy imagined negative outcomes? What if we intentionally feed the seeds of what we want to experience, the positive visions? The consequences of not doing so are too great.
For further reading –
http://www.childanxiety.net/Resources_for_Parents.htm     list of children’s books
http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-children-parents/ Karen   The Things Loving Parents Might Do that Unintentionally Feed Anxiety in children – and what to do instead 

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