By Aureen Pinto Wagner, Ph.D.
Anxiety is a good thing! It may be surprising to hear that said, because we don’t typically like anxiety. Nonetheless, it is normal, natural, and necessary. At the right time, place and level, anxiety is reasonable and helpful because it helps us keep safe from danger and motivated to handle challenges. However, too much anxiety is not helpful because it can impede us from the pursuit of learning, relationships and fun.
Unfortunately, too many kids, teens and adults have too much anxiety. In fact, excessive anxiety is the most common emotional problem in Canada, the US and many other countries, affecting 12-13% of the population.
How Much is Too Much?
How do we know how much anxiety is reasonable and how much is too much?
The Fearmometer is a helpful tool to gauge anxiety. Too much anxiety means that our Feeling Temperature is much higher than it needs to be in a situation. We perceive the threat to be far greater than it really is, and we think we are not brave enough to handle the threat. Too much anxiety is like a false alarm—it sounds scary, but there is no danger. The Feeling Temperature is an indicator of the volume of the false alarm. (Download a copy of the Fearmometer at www.anxietywellness.com/Articles.htm) Sarah is a 9 on the Fearmometer when she thinks about the math test, but knows that she only needs to be a 5 or 6. Anthony is an 8 at bedtime, but his siblings and parents are a 1, and he wants to be a 1 as well. Casey’s worries about germs in the cafeteria are a 10; his friends at school are not at all concerned, and he wishes he could be like them. Milena is terrified of thunderstorms. She too wishes she could be a 1 instead of a 10; just like her friends and family.
Sarah, Anthony, Casey and Milena would all like to bring down their Feeling Temperature to a reasonable and helpful level. The good news is that it can be done!
Knowledge is Power
The first step to bringing down one’s Feeling Temperature is to understand how anxiety works. Three things usually happen when our Feeling Temperature is too high.
- Thoughts: We have worry thoughts about threat such as, “Something bad will happen, I don’t know what to do, I can’t handle it, I need to know for sure it’s going to be okay.”
- Body: Our brain signals our body to get ready for “fight or flight,” and releases adrenalin. We may feel nervous, tense, unable to relax, have trouble breathing; our hearts may be pounding, and stomachs upset.
- Behavior: We are more likely to engage in flight rather than fight, because we don’t like anxiety. We escape, avoid, check, ask for reassurance or do rituals that help us get rid of the anxiety and feel better quickly.
The Vicious Cycle of Avoidance
If we avoid or escape something that makes us afraid, would that not take care of the problem? It may come as a surprise to many that it actually makes the problem worse! That’s because the sense of relief we experience when we avoid or escape what we fear feels so good that we are more likely to do the same thing next time we’re in that situation. In addition, when we escape or avoid, we do not give ourselves the chance to find out if the danger is real, or if we can handle it. It is so essential for children, teens and parents to understand that avoidance fuels a vicious cycle of anxiety or fear.
Parents are often surprised to learn that they may be fueling the cycle of anxiety in their children without realizing it. It is very understandable that parents usually don’t like to see their children upset, and therefore may do many things to help them feel better, such as reassure, comfort and overprotect. They may be on alert for distress and rush to fix the problem. Parents may hesitate to encourage their child to take risks, and may allow avoidance and escape. They also feel worried, sad, frustrated, guilty and helpless because nothing seems to work.
Bring Down your Feeling Temperature
My goal is to empower children and teens to learn to bring down their Feeling Temperature, using tried and true cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques. CBT has been scientifically shown to be an effective treatment for anxiety in children and teens, and is considered the gold standard of treatment. The essence of CBT is that you must face your fears and break the vicious cycle of anxiety. This is called exposure and it is the most powerful and enduring way of overcoming too much anxiety.
Children and teens can very successfully handle their anxiety when they hear the messages in child-friendly language: Once you know how anxiety works, you can learn three things to bring down your Feeling Temperature: Calm your body, change your worry thoughts and face your fears. You will find out that you’re in charge, not anxiety! You can learn to change how you think and act, and do the opposite of what anxiety tells you to do.
Up and Down the Worry Hill®
Facing your fears—exposure—is a lot like riding a bicycle up a big Worry Hill®. In the beginning, it is hard work. You huff and you puff up the hill. If you keep going and don’t give up, you get to the top of the Worry Hill. Once you get to the top, you find out that your fears don’t come true! It’s just a false alarm—there is no danger in it. Then, it’s easy to ride down the hill. Your anxiety comes down. You can only coast down the hill if you first get to the top. Getting to the top of the Worry Hill takes patience and hard work. The more you practice, the easier it gets. When you face your fears again and again, you start getting used to them. You find out you are much braver than you think you are!
What Parents Can Do
Parents also need to recognize the false alarm. When unsure about how to respond to their child’s excessive anxiety, I suggest that parents ask themselves these two questions: Am I asking my child to do anything unsafe? Do I want my child to continue to be afraid? If their answer to these questions is “No,” they can encourage their child to label anxiety as a false alarm and to change the worry thoughts. Most importantly, they can nudge their child one notch outside their comfort zone to ride up and down the Worry Hill, and celebrate their child’s bravery. We are all braver than we think we are!
Upcoming Workshop: Up and Down the Worry Hill: Child-Friendly CBT for Anxiety in Children and Adolescents
Presented by Aureen Wagner, Ph.D.
Anxiety is the most commonly diagnosed mental health problem in children and adolescents, affecting about 12% of school-going youngsters. Many anxious youth experience serious problems at home, in school, and with peers.
Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), the gold standard of treatment, has been shown to be effective in helping as many as 80 percent of these youngsters conquer anxiety. Unfortunately, many anxious youth do not receive CBT. If untreated, youngsters with anxiety are at higher risk for academic underachievement, substance use and school drop-out.
In this practical, strategy-filled workshop, internationally known anxiety expert Dr. Aureen Wagner presents the innovative and child-friendly Worry Hill® CBT approach for youth anxiety. Known for her clarity, compassion and engaging style, Dr. Wagner combines scientifically-proven strategies with clinical pearls to offer ready-to-use tools for clinical practices and schools.