”If only worry thoughts came clearly labeled ”unreliable” or “unrealistic”, life would be so much easier. Then, like junk mail, they could be sorted out, ripped up, and thrown away. Since they don’t, there’s only one way to get enough distance from the anxiety to actually see it for what it is. When parents relabel and demote the validity of a worry thought, kids will feel freer to do the same. It’s a technical glitch, a false alarm, a worry brain jumping to conclusions, it’s a sticky “what if” thought. Don’t trust it!”
- Freeing Your Child From Anxiety by Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D.
I purchased the quoted book to try to help my three year old overcome his recent fear of driving on roads (he’ll drive around our backyard with my husband but panics at the gate to the road). If you have a child struggling with anxiety, worry, or phobias, the book will teach you effective methods for helping your him or her manage and triumph over it. And if you don’t have a child, simply replace the phrases “parent” and “child” with “Loving Adult” and “Inner Child.” (This is a handy technique that you can use to glean powerful information from parenting books as you’re learning how to parent your inner child in healthy and loving ways.) So although I purchased it to help with my own actual child, nearly every page has information that applies to the work that I do with clients struggling with anxiety.
Most of my client share that they’ve struggled with anxiety their entire lives, and often recall that the anxiety started at around age eight. (Eight is a pivotal year developmentally as kids develop greater awareness of the outside world and are making the leap into “big kid-ness”: i.e. not quite a child but not quite an adolescent, which can trigger feeling out of control.) Well-meaning parents, who often struggled with anxiety themselves or pushed it underground until it manifested as depression, helplessly brushed away the anxiety with platitudes like, “Don’t worry about that!” or “Don’t be such a scaredy-cat.” Obviously, such simple and insensitive statement do nothing to alleviate anxiety. This is different than the examples stated in the above quote as the author is encouraging parents to help children identify different parts of themselves: worry brain versus true self. This is similar to the language of Inner Bonding®, where we talk about the Wounded Self versus the Core Self or Inner Child. Much of the work of healing from anxiety is learning to identify that the thoughts that inform your running commentary are coming from your Wounded Self, not your Core Self.
The challenge that occurs with transitions like getting married and becoming a parent is that our culture reinforces the “junk mail” thoughts with messages like, “If you’re not happier than you’ve ever been, you’re making a mistake, you don’t love him/her enough, or you don’t really want to be a mother/father.” Our cultural addiction to happiness prevents the necessary grief and normal fear associated with transitions from finding acceptance, expression, and release. Our messages about love, romance, and marriage are soaked in Hollywood-induced fantasy, and motherhood is usually presented as utopian bliss. When the shadow feelings of grief, doubt, confusion, and fear set in, they’re in such direct contrast to the cultural images that most people can only respond with shame, which then mutates into anxiety. Sorting the false thoughts as junk-mail becomes impossible if you don’t have access to new information that educates you to the truth. This is where the work of Conscious Transitions comes in.
Regardless of whether or not you’re in transition, if you’re struggling with anxiety the most effective and necessary course of action is to learn to identify the false beliefs or thoughts and replace them with the truth. In the beginning this usually means simply noticing the false thoughts, and then naming them. “Notice it and name it,” I tell my clients each week. For example, if a thought arises that says, “You don’t deserve to be loved,” you gently notice it by saying, “That’s an unloving thought” and then name it by saying, “It’s coming from my wounded self.” Once you notice it you begin the process of separating from it, and when you name it you’re sending the internal message that says, “This isn’t my true self. This thought is coming from a wounded and scared part of me.” In other words, instead of automatically and habitually believing the thought, you create a space inside that allows you to question its veracity. Defusing from the fear-based thoughts is an essential first step in healing from anxiety since you can’t challenge something that’s wound around you like a boa constrictor.
You may have to repeat this step a thousand times. If you’re wired for anxiety you’re battling a neurological mis-firing that immediately triggers a flight-or-flight response to situations that don’t warrant this level of fear. Your wounded body might believe, for example that “love isn’t safe” or “love means loss (of self or other)” and unless you challenge these deeply-rooted beliefs and old scripts, you’ll continue to behave as if they’re true. They may have been true as a child – which is where relationship anxiety becomes more confusing than other forms of anxiety because there was truth to the statement at one point in your life – but as a capable adult these statements are no longer true. Once you have a grasp on the fear-based thoughts have been ruling your life, have identified them as coming from your wounded self (notice it and name it), you can start to make different choices regarding your actions.
The next time you’re feeling anxious, the first question should be, “What am I telling myself that’s creating this anxiety?” The next question should be, “How am I responding to this thought?” When you can respond from your Loving Adult by noticing it, naming it, and then challenging it or replacing it with the truth and taking loving action (the steps of Inner Bonding®), you’ll have made great strides in your effort toward creating new and healthy neurological and emotional pathways which will allow you to live an anxiety-free life.
And, like most things, this is all easier said than done. Healthy doses of commitment, time, and patience are required when re-wiring habitual thoughts that have been in place for years, if not decades. But the fact that you’re reading this means that something inside of you is sick and tired of being a victim to your fear. Perhaps you’re ready to learn the skills and tools that will allow you to turn over a new leaf. If so, welcome to the journey. I’m here to support you in any way that I can.