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When I Finally Understood My Daughter's Anxiety

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It’s hard to have an anxious child.

The hardest part for me to understand is that her fears seem irrational, and her reactions appear to be unreasonable.

I understand her anxiety is an automatic reaction to a perceived, almost inexplicable fear, and that it feels very real to her. But emotionally, I have a really hard time not feeling overwhelmed, out of control and disconnected from her, and her experience.

That’s until I was about to book an international flight to head back home to visit my family…that’s when it hit me.

Just like my daughter who is pumped and excited one second, and then overcome with anxiety the next, I was unexpectedly struck with intense, visceral anxiety. Suddenly everything that seemed like a minor detail became a pronounced and unavoidable threat (the least of which is the fact that I’d be reaching my destination by hurling through the sky at unimaginable speeds in a glorified tin can and I’d be all alone).

Thinking of all the steps and accompanying fears that I’ll have to overcome before touching ground on the other side suddenly feel insurmountable. My heart starts to beat faster, my breath quickens, a wave of heat rushes from my chest through my upper body, and my thoughts begin to race. There’s no question — I am feeling anxious.

The contrast to my excitement about taking off on my own for the first time in well over a decade, plus my clinical experience as a psychologist and my own personal work in therapy, helps me pinpoint my unmistakable reaction. “This is interesting, ” I think, and step back in my mind to observe my thoughts and physical sensations. I am then suddenly struck with a deep and unexpected understanding of my daughter’s struggle.

So this is what she goes through.

Anxiety truly is an instinctual, automatic response to threat causing one to quickly feel completely out of our control. She’s not messing around! No matter how much you want it to stop, you just can’t help it. It’s scary, often creeping in unexpectedly, and it can sometimes feel like there is no end or alternative to the fear.

I’ve felt anxious before, particularly when my daughter would start to protest and panic. But now that I am able to recognize and manage my own anxiety (through lots of my own work), that is connect with my own experience with curiosity and acceptance; I am better equipped to connect with my daughter’s struggle in the same way.

So when my daughter reacts anxiously I now know that not only can she not help it, but that she feels truly and deeply distressed. She is trapped and all alone in her suffering.

Even if her behavior irritates, annoys or overwhelms me, by tuning into my own experience of sheer panic and helplessness, I can reconnect with what’s going on for her. And even if she feels terribly afraid in this moment, at least she doesn’t need to feel alone.

Photo credit: kieferpix/Getty Images

Originally published: April 28, 2019
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