Monday Musings…. Forget the Worry Train, I’m on the Anxiety Express!

All aboard! No one told you when you were a young child that your life journey would be fret with worry. In fact, parents avoid the topic all together because they’re worried how it might impact their children. How backwards is that? 😊

Well, no doubt in these last days of summer, parents are indeed worried about the future of their children, in terms of education. Whether it’s elementary, high school, or even post secondary, the decision to allow their children to attend school, in person, is on their minds. Who would have thought, in this lifetime, you’d have to question whether it was ‘safe’ to send your child to school? I don’t think any of us saw this one coming a year ago!

And so, parents everywhere are climbing aboard that worry train, and for some, it’s picking up steam as the distance to the destination draws near. It’s also likely getting pretty difficult to hide your worry from your children, and that may be fueling the whole issue even more.

Why do you worry? And is there a difference between worry and anxiety?

Let’s get one thing straight – everyone worries. Worry stems from a realistic thought about a specific concern that you’ve got on your mind, and you feel pressed to solve it in some way. I want you to think back to your past. Maybe you’ve worried that you didn’t prepare well enough for a test, a job interview, or even for the company that was arriving on the weekend. You have a specific concern – a test, an interview, or company, and it’s realistic to worry about whether you’ve studied enough, whether you’ll get the job, or whether you’ll meet the needs of your guests. So, in order to reduce your worry, you tell yourself to study hard, to have answers prepared for the possible questions you may be asked in the interview, and you’ll stock your fridge and clean the house. Knowing you’ve done these things reduces the worry and you carry on with life. Worry essentially resides in your thoughts and is managed relatively quickly by your capacity to control those thoughts through reason and preparation.

Anxiety, on the other hand, goes beyond the surface level of normal concern and snowballs into irrational and catastrophic thoughts, worst-case-scenario kinds of mind games, that soon make your heart race, your breathing laboured, and your pores perspire profusely. There’s a real physical component to anxiety unlike worry, and that’s often the first indicator for you to stop and take stock of what’s going on in that brain housing station of yours. Another clue that you’ve escalated from worry to anxiety is that when someone asks you what’s wrong (likely because they’ve noticed how flushed, sweaty, and distressed you are) you either shut down or burst out to be left alone as you’re “trying to figure this out”. The ability to gain control of those thoughts is a real challenge, and outside effort offering suggestions is often met with an intense emotional reaction that this person, who’s trying to be helpful, can’t understand and you tell them that there’s no answer to your problem anyway.

So, going back to the earlier examples of worry, someone who has left the worry train and boarded the anxiety express will think they’ll fail no matter how hard they study. They believe they’ll bomb the interview, even though you’ve quizzed them with possible scenarios and they nailed the practice round. Or they’ve purchased too much food, cleaned the house twice including the closets, but they’re still second guessing as the company arrives, and the first thing they say after hello is “oh don’t mind the mess”.

You see with anxiety, it’s not really about the test, or the interview, or about the clean house and stocked fridge. It’s about seeing themselves as a failure, as incompetent, and not having the approval of others.

Worry focuses on the immediate issue, while anxiety goes deeper and sets up a mental picture of utter disappointment, and never getting things right, and needing recurrent affirmation that things will be ok, all the while doubting that could be possible.

People who worry may have a back-up plan; those who are anxious, spend their time focusing on every possible thing that could go wrong, leaving very little energy to think of, let alone accept, a back-up plan.

Don’t get me wrong, people who worry still feel emotional distress, it’s just not as severe or long lasting as someone who is anxious. Instead, worry tends to be temporary, while anxiety not only lingers, it often builds to the point where it interferes with your personal or professional life.

So, you’ve got a decision to make about putting your kids into school or not? Every parent has the same dilemma in front of them. This is a complex conundrum because there are no guarantees your child will not be exposed to the virus. They, and you, are walking into the unknown and the uncertain. And let’s not forget, it involves everyone’s health.

If you’re worried, you’ll take a look at the information you’re given and process it rationally, deciding what is in the best interests of your family. You may even have a back-up plan should new information present itself. But you will not second guess, nor will you feel the need to justify to others why you made the decision to put your kids into school, or teach them from home.

But, if you’re anxious, you’ll continue to gather information from every source possible, especially those who feed into your worst fears. Research shows that when you’re anxious you don’t want to hear both sides of the story, you'll prefer to listen to the one that will validate your greatest fears. Counter-intuitive, but that’s how your brain convinces you your anxiety is justified. You also will doubt that any safety protocol will be sufficient to protect your child. You will lose sleep, believing that any cough or sniffle is a symptom of something more serious. Your hands will be raw from sanitizing, your social circle will shrink, and you will be constantly on guard as you attempt to eliminate the possibility of any exposure, all the while believing your tactics are reasonable. You’ll extend this fear into doubt over your capability to home school, believing you may fail your child, and you’ll lie awake at night lamenting that they will never get into the post-secondary program you dreamed they would. And they are only in grade 3!

The thing to remember is whether you worry or whether you’re anxious, you’re only trying to be the best parent you can be in this current crisis no one was prepared for. But regardless of this new terrain you're travelling on, you have faced moments of decision prior to this. Think about how you resolved past predicaments, where you felt confident in the outcome. What mental processes did you use to avoid the anxiety express? As I said earlier, everyone worries, but worry is rational, specific, and temporary with a problem-focused solution. Can you take your current concern today, and look at it through that lens to avoid be derailed?

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© 2020 Connect the Thoughts: Charlene Mahon