Karen Young

@karen-young | contributor
As a psychologist, Karen has worked in private practice and organizational and educational settings. She is a mother, Huffington Post blogger, regular contributor to The Good Men Project, staff editor of The Neuropsychotherapist and founder of www.heysigmund.com, a website dedicated to bringing the science of psychology to the art of being human. Experience has taught her that psychology has something for everyone, jargon doesn’t, everyone has a story to tell, short bios are the longest to write, nobody has it all figured out and the best people to be around are the ones who already know this. She can be found here on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter.
Karen Young

How to Help Kids Cope With Anxiety

Anxiety in very young children, or all children for that matter, is a pretty normal part of their development. They’re getting used to the world and making sense of their place in it. But for some kids, anxiety can have a more intrusive impact on their lives. Explaining what anxiety is to older children and why it feels like it does will make a huge difference. They can do pretty amazing things with the right information. For younger ones, though, this can be a bit more difficult, particularly if their language is still developing. The good news is that there are plenty of things the grown-ups in their lives can do to help them through. The truth is there’s no one better. 1. Offer a comforting touch. Humans were meant to be touched. It’s why we’re covered in skin and not spikes. If your little one is feeling anxious, touching them will initiate the release of neurochemicals that will start a relaxation response. Touching is one of the most healing things we humans can do. Try touching your child gently on the shoulder or the back — as long as he or she is OK with this, of course. 2. Or even better, hold them. Even better than touching them is holding them. Anxiety feels flighty. It feels insecure and turbulent. Help your child feel grounded by holding them. Research has found that hugging brings on a significant reduction in cortisol (the stress hormone). The huggable target doesn’t have to be human – just something huggable. (Though does it get much better than human?) Let them feel you as a steadying presence. One of the symptoms of anxiety is clinginess. This isn’t surprising; actually, it’s another brilliant adaptive human trait. Young children might not be able to articulate it, but their body knows it needs to be grounded. If it’s what they need, give it. This won’t always be convenient, but if you can, let them fold into you. Stop cooking dinner, put down the phone and just for a couple of minutes, let them feel you keeping them safe. Make sure your own breath is steady so they don’t feel you as flighty. They’ll pick up whatever you send out. Having said this, make sure after a quick cuddle, you also encourage a brave response. You don’t want to inadvertently reinforce their anxiety by giving them something positive (a cuddle) every time they become anxious. Cuddle them, then encourage them to try something that will ultimately move them toward learning an effective response, even if it’s just holding steady and breathing. 3. Use a soft toy pet to teach them about self-calming. Make sure it’s an animal that’s fairly lifelike – a dog or a cat or something else that they would be happy to have against them. If you can get one that’s sleeping, all the better. At bedtime, tell them the puppy/cat/whatever has fallen asleep, too. Put it against their tummy or nestle it into the side of them and tell them they have to try to keep the toy pet asleep by breathing and moving very gently so as not to wake it up. This will focus them on their own body and develop their capacity to control their breathing – a valuable, relaxing skill. 4. Make sure their breathing is just right. In the midst of anxiety, breathing changes from slow and deep to short and shallow. This is one of the reasons for the physical symptoms of anxiety in children, or anyone for that matter. Have your child practice breathing every day so that when he or she is in the midst of anxiety, it’ll be easier to call on effective breathing. Effective breathing comes from the belly, rather than the chest. Have your child practice their strong breathing by placing a soft toy on their tummy when they lie down. If the toy moves up and down, their breathing is perfect. 5. Use this specific kind of storytelling as a teaching tool. We love stories because we can relate – to the characters, the feelings, the situation. As well as being good fun, stories can also be a powerful tool, particularly with kids. Let’s start with an example of a story and then we’ll talk about how you can use it. Make up a story about a child who has the same fear and shares other similarities with your child – maybe in relation to favorite foods, where they live, what they like. Here’s one idea to get you started. Add detail however you like: This is just an example and as you can see, it doesn’t have to be a complicated story, just one they can relate to. A good story should do these things: Help them understand more about the issue: Kids might find it easier to talk about feelings when they don’t have to own them directly. Stories facilitate this perfectly. Asking kids about the thoughts and feelings of a character can reveal a lot about where they’re at because their answers will be influenced by their own thoughts and feelings. For example, if you were telling the story above, ask your child: What does Mitch think might happen in the dark? What does Mitch need to feel better? Involve them in the solution process: If kids feel as though they have some control and input, they’re more like to stick to the strategy you put in place. In your story, include the different strategies you might use to ease the bedtime ritual, and ask your child to choose. “So, if you were Mitch, what would you do? … You’re a bit of a superhero, I think this could work for you. Let’s try it.” Help them find an anchor: An anchor is a word or phrase they can call on when they’re feeling anxious. Chances are, in the thick of an anxiety attack there will be no words, which is why it’s important to decide on the word or phrase beforehand and remind them of it when they need it. It might be as simple as “relax,” or “I’m OK.” Ask what would be a good thing for Mitch to hear when he gets scared. 6. Practice mindfulness with them. If your child is worried, ask them where in their body they feel their worry might be living. Is it in their tummy? Their head? Arms? Legs? Chest? Ask them to gently put their hand on it, or they might prefer yours. Next, have them concentrate on their hand (or yours) and feel it comforting them. Remind them to breathe slowly in and out. As they breathe in, invite them to  imagine the air going straight to their worry spot. Then imagine that when they breathe out, the breath is taking some of worry out with it. Just enough to make them feel more comfortable with the feeling. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go completely. The idea is to make it manageable. 7. Try the stepladder approach to anxiety-inducing situations. The idea of the stepladder approach is to gradually expose kids to the feared situation or object so they can get used to it gradually. Start with a mild version of whatever it is that causes your child to feel anxious. Expose them a few times until they can handle it (make it super easy to start with), then move on to something a bit more anxiety-inducing. Expose them a few times until they get used to it. It’s important you don’t force them, but let them go at their own pace. Here’s an example for someone who’s scared of dogs: Start with a book about dogs. Spend some time looking at the pictures. Move to a fluffy toy dog. Touch it and hold it with them. Look at dogs on television. Hold a friendly little dog and encourage them to look at it. Hold the little dog and encourage them to touch it. Let them hold the little dog. Encourage them to look at a big friendly dog. Encourage them to pat a big friendly dog. 8. Explain to your child there are better places for worries than keeping them inside. Have them draw their worries, and when they feel done, invite them to rip up the paper and throw it away. Whatever you do, don’t forget to explain this is what you’ll be doing. You don’t want to be ripping up any precious masterpieces. 9. Create a source of comfort they can carry in their pockets. This is a powerful technique for kids who struggle with separation anxiety. Copy a photo of you and a photo of your child onto a piece of paper. Make sure the photos are touching. Then cut the paper in half and fold it up – to keep it safe. Give them the photo of you and you take the photo of them. When they’re away, the photo of them stays in your pocket and the photo of you stays in theirs. At night, the photo comes back together and stays on the fridge or their mirror, or wherever it can be visible. 10. Don’t encourage avoidance. The more your child avoids a situation, the harder it’ll be to face. Though you don’t want to push them too hard, don’t go out of your way to avoid the feared object. This could inadvertently reinforce the fear by communicating to them it’s scary and should be avoided. Praise any attempt they make to show brave behavior. 11. Avoid labels like “anxious” or “shy.” It’ll become a part of their self-concept and they’ll behave in such a way as to reinforce the way you see them. Anxiety usually means that brave behavior is coming. Even if it doesn’t come straight away, generally they’re working on it. Focus on their attempt to be “brave,” rather than their “anxious” behavior. For kids with anxiety, parents and the people who love them are so important and can really make a difference. Decide on the strategies that seem to fit for your child and stay with those strategies. Don’t worry if they don’t work the first time, or the first few. Anxiety can be robust and persistent, but with you behind them, your child can be even more so. A version of this post originally appeared on Hey Sigmund.

Karen Young

Loving Someone With Anxiety: What to Know

Anxiety is unpredictable, confusing and intrusive. It’s tough. Not just for the people who have it but also for the people who love them. If you are one of those people, you would know too well that the second hand experience of anxiety feels bad enough – you’d do anything to make it better for the one going through it. Whether we struggle with anxiety, confidence, body image – whatever – there are things we all need to make the world a little bit safer, a little bit more predictable, a little less scary. We all have our list. If you love someone with anxiety, their list is likely to look a little like this: 1. They’ll talk about their anxiety when they feel ready. In the thick of an anxiety attack, nothing will make sense, so it’s best not to ask what’s going on or if they’re OK. No, they don’t feel OK. And yes, it feels like the world is falling apart at the seams. Ask if they want to go somewhere else – maybe somewhere quieter or more private. Don’t panic or do anything that might give them the idea that they need looking after. Go for a walk with them, or just be there. Soon it will pass and when it does, they’ll be able to talk to you about what has happened, but wait for that. Then just listen and be there. 2. They’re pretty great to have around. You’ll want them as part of your tribe. Because of their need to stay safe and to prepare against the next time anxiety rears its head, people who struggle with anxiety will generally have a plan – and they will have worked hard to make sure it works for everyone involved, not just for themselves. They’ll make sure everything has been organized to keep everyone safe, happy, on time and out of trouble. Notice the good things they do – there are plenty. Let them know you love them because of who they are, including who they are with anxiety, not despite it. 3. Remember: anxiety is a normal physical response to a brain being a little overprotective. There’s a primitive part of all of our brains that’s geared to sense threat. For some people, it fires up a lot sooner and with a lot less reason than it does in others. When it does, it surges the body with cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline to get the body ready to run for its life or fight for it. This is the fight or flight response and it’s in everyone. The “go” button is a bit more sensitive for people with anxiety. 4. There’s a lot to know, so if you try to understand everything you can … well, that makes you kind of awesome. It makes a difference to be able to talk about anxiety without having to explain it. On the days they don’t feel like they have it in them to talk about it, it means a lot that you just “get it.” If you’ve tried to understand everything you can about what it means to have anxiety, then that’s enough. Anxiety is hard to make sense of – people with anxiety will be the first to tell you that – but it will mean everything that you’ve tried. 5. Make sure there’s room to say “no.” And don’t take it personally. People with anxiety are super aware of everything going on – smells, sounds, people, possibilities. It’s exhausting when your attention is drawn to so many things. Don’t take “no” personally. Just because they might not want to be doing what you’re doing, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be with you. Keep offering – don’t assume everything you offer will be met with “no” – but be understanding and “no big deal” if you aren’t taken up on your offer. They are saying no to a potential anxiety attack. Not to you. 6. Loads of lovin’ never hurt anyone, so be compassionate and there for them. Talk up the things you love about them. There will be times that people with anxiety will feel like they are their anxiety and that they are a source of difficulty. (Who hasn’t felt like they’re making things harder than they need to be?) Specifically, I’m talking about when plans have to be changed, when you need to book a few rows back from the front row, turn the radio down, take the long way. If this is the worst you have to deal with in a friend, sign me up. 7. Anxiety has nothing to do with courage or character. Nothing at all. Courage is feeling the edge of yourself and moving beyond it. We all have our limits, but people with anxiety are just more aware of theirs. Despite this, they are constantly facing up to the things that push against their edges. That’s courage, and people with anxiety have it in truckloads. They’re strong, intelligent and sensitive – they’ll be as sensitive to you and what you need as they are to their environment. That makes them pretty awesome to be with. They can be funny, kind, brave and spirited. Really, they’re no different than anyone else. As with everyone, the thing that trips them up sometimes (their anxiety) is also the thing that lifts them above the crowd. 8. Anxiety can change shape. It doesn’t always look the same way. Anxiety can be slippery. Sometimes it looks the way you’d expect anxiety to look. Other times it looks cranky, depressed or frustrated. Remember this and don’t take it personally. 9. People with anxiety know their anxiety doesn’t always make sense. That’s what makes it so difficult. Explaining there’s nothing to worry about or they should “get over it” won’t mean anything – it just won’t – because they already know this. Be understanding, calm and relaxed and above all else, just be there. Anxiety feels flighty and there’s often nothing that feels better than having someone beside you who’s grounded, available and OK to go through this with you without trying to change you. 10. Don’t try to change them. You’ll want to give advice. But don’t. Let them know that to you, they’re absolutely fine the way they are and that you don’t need to change them or fix them. If they ask for your advice then of course, go for it. Otherwise, let them know they are enough. More than enough, actually. Just the way they are. 11. Don’t confuse their need to control their environment with their need to control you. Sometimes they look the same. They’re not. The need to control everything that might go wrong is hard work for anxious people, and it also might make you feel controlled. See it for what it is: the need to feel safe and in control of the possibility of anxiety running the show – not the need to control you. You might get frustrated, and that’s OK; all relationships go through that. Having compassion doesn’t mean you have to go along with everything put in front of you, so talk things out gently (not critically) if you need to. And finally … 12. Know how important you are to them. Anyone who sticks around through the hard stuff is a keeper. People with anxiety know this. Nothing sparks a connection more than really getting someone, being there and bringing the fun into the relationship. Be the one who refuses to let anxiety suck the life out of everything. And know you’re a keeper. Yep. You are. Know they’re grateful – so grateful – for everything you do. And they love you back. A longer version of this post originally appeared on Hey Sigmund. RELATED: 31 Secrets of People Who Live With Anxiety Do you have a story about your experience with mental illness? We want to hear it. Please send it to community@themighty.com and include a photo for the story, a photo of yourself and a 1-2 sentence bio. More info here. Thanks!

Karen Young

Things People With Anxiety Can Teach You

The points that follow may not be relevant to every person with anxiety, but neither is the list of symptoms. Humans are complex, fascinating and frustrating, and between the heart and the head, there are countless versions of the human experience. There are some things that all the books, lectures, courses and research just can’t teach us about anxiety. They’re the things that come from people – the ones we talk to, listen to, connect with, acquaint with, like a little, love a lot or fight with. Here are the things that I wouldn’t have known – couldn’t have known – were it not for those who have experienced anxiety from the front line. 1. Anxiety is the fuel of contradictions. Sometimes feelings that are on opposite ends of the feeling spectrum actually do coexist. Sometimes they even feel the same. The first is craving solitude and craving people all at once. The second is having a fear of being seen and a fear of not being seen at the same time. If you’ve ever known or loved anyone with anxiety and found yourself saying to them, “But I just don’t understand what you want,” don’t worry. Chances are they aren’t quite sure either. And that’s completely OK. Be grateful for the opportunity to practice being comfortable with uncertainty. 2. They’re wise about who they choose to be part of their tribe. Anxiety comes from a heightened threat sensor, and the threat of psychological harm (humiliation, rejection, shame) can feel just as real as the threat of physical harm. Because interacting with people can be so anxiety-inducing, people with anxiety are choosey about who they let close. They’re not rude about putting up the wall to those who don’t quite make the cut – not at all – but they’re decisive. If you’re one of the ones for whom the fortress is lowered, feel blessed, because you are. There’s something about you that feels safe and lovely to be around. 3. They’re awesome to have in your tribe, too. People with anxiety are some of the most emotionally intelligent people I’ve met – they’re funny, kind, thoughtful and strong. They’re also very sensitive to what’s around them – it’s part of having a heightened threat sensor – and that sensitivity also extends to you and anyone else they’re around. They’ll think about what’s OK to say and what’s not OK to say, what needs to be done and what you might want. Anxiety has a way of persuading people to try for as much control as possible over the “unknowns” in order to avoid potential chaos. This means they’ll be the ones who make sure everyone knows exactly where to meet, what time to leave to get there on time, what to take and the best way to get there. They’ll be the ones with the spare jumper, the spare coins and the spare phone charger. Just don’t forget to let you know how much you love them for it. 4. Thoughts have more pull than knowledge. Yep. They can run the mothership. Thoughts stoked by anxiety can be frightening, frustrating and suffocating. Above all else, they’re powerful. They’re more powerful than a lifetime of knowledge and the collective knowledge of a group, so don’t even bother trying to reason – it’s pointless. “Knowing” there’s nothing to worry about isn’t enough. Once fearful thoughts are in full swing, they’ll run the show. They’ll drive behavior and bring feelings (fear, panic, anxiety) to life. All the knowledge in the world about what’s valid, real or likely won’t make any difference to those thoughts that are swelling. It’s the power of the mind against the mind. 5. Sometimes it feels like it’s all about the head and the stomach. Anxiety can have a way of putting flashing lights around the head and stomach, as though they’re running the show – which, in that space of high anxiety, they kind of are. When anxiety is “on,” it can feel like the head and stomach are the only parts of the body capable of feeling, responding and being. 6. “Everyday,” as in “everyday things,” means something different. “Everyday” doesn’t always mean “no big deal.” With anxiety on board, everything can feel like the biggest deal. What everyday means is “every day,” as in the things you do every day – today, tomorrow and the next day. As in, “Yes, I know I should be OK with it because I do it every day, but I’m not.” Anxiety doesn’t tend to keep a journal. 7. Thoughts that begin as little thoughts can change the entire day. Did I lock the door? What if I forget his name? What if there’s an accident? What if we’re late? What if the restaurant runs out of tables under the heater? … It doesn’t matter how much effort is put into preparation; once there’s a worry, it can white-knuckle for grip. The thoughts are often rational, plausible and possible, but anxiety makes them overwhelming. 8. “There’s nothing to worry about” is the best thing to hear. Wait. No. It’s not. You’d think it would be comforting to hear that there’s nothing to worry about, but it can actually be isolating. Think of it like this: Imagine being at the side of a wide road you need to cross. Everyone is telling you it’s fine to cross and they’re all doing it, but you see trucks, cars, buses and bikes barreling from the left and the right. Nobody else can see them. You know the road is OK to cross, but you can’t – you just can’t. That traffic! So, not only do you feel panicked but you also feel like you’re in it on your own. It can feel like nobody else really understands, which they might not – otherwise they wouldn’t be telling you there’s nothing to worry about. The truth is, when it comes to anxiety, it can be difficult for people who have never experienced it to understand – but that’s OK. You don’t need to fully understand something to be a comforting presence through the unfolding of it. 9. Anxiety and courage exist together. When it comes to courage, anxious people have it in truckloads. Just getting through the day can call on enormous reservoirs of courage that the rest of us might only need to draw on now and then. Anxiety and courage always exist together. They have to. You can’t get through day after day with anxiety blocking the path, without having courage to help push a way through. 10. Stimulation or isolation? Sometimes I’ll take isolation. Anxiety can force isolation. Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – people with anxiety would rather sit outside in the cold on their own than inside with their favorite people, the noise and the lights. It has nothing to do with the quality of what’s inside and everything to do with the quantity. 11. Sometimes “I’m sick” and “I’m fine” means “I’m panicking. Don’t ask.” Anxiety hates attention. When anxiety is triggered, the normal human response if you’re the concerned other is, “Are you OK?” or “What’s wrong?” If you have to ask, then no, chances are they’re not OK. Don’t worry – just be a strong, confident, loving presence. You’ll probably be told, “I’m fine” or “I’m sick.” It’s not a brush-off, it’s a protection. Don’t keep pushing it – just give a gentle “I’m here” squeeze of their arm or hand and move on. 12. Just because someone’s tired doesn’t mean sleep comes easily. Anxiety is tiring, but sleep doesn’t necessarily come easily. Tiredness makes anxiety worse and anxiety makes tiredness worse – you would think it would be a union made in heaven, but no. It can look at little like this: “I have to get to sleep, otherwise I’m going to be out of my mind with tiredness in the morning, so I just have to go to sleep. But what if I can’t get to sleep? But I have to go to sleep. But what if I can’t?? Anxious yet? As with any part of the human experience, there are so many things about anxiety that can only be understood by having it. If you love someone with anxiety, it’s important to pay attention. There will be wisdom and knowledge that only they can give you. Be open, and be grateful. A longer version of this post originally appeared on Hey Sigmund. RELATED: 31 Secrets of People Who Live With Anxiety Do you have a story about your experience with mental illness? We’d like to read it. Please send it to community@themighty.com and include a photo for the story, a photo of yourself and a 1-2 sentence bio. More info here. Thanks!