Monday, February 22, 2010


I was a senior in high school, waiting at home for my boyfriend Bruce to arrive. He was uncharacteristically late. Snow was falling heavily. Vaguely uneasy thoughts began to swirl through my head. Was he okay? Had he been in an accident? I didn't know, and in an era long before cell phones, I had no way to find out. I told myself traffic was probably slow because of the weather. I reminded myself that maybe he'd gotten a late start. And of course, (I said inwardly) it would be better if he drove carefully than if he tried to get to my house quickly.

Reason worked well for a while, but as the clock ticked onward it became less effective. My stomach began to churn. I was restless, unfocused, uneasy. Finally, around 4:45 I thought, I've got to find another way to handle this worry. There are lots of possibilities about what's happened, and I don't even know what to worry about. So I'm going to wait until 5:30, which leaves him plenty of time to get here with delays, and then if he hasn't shown up I'll worry.

Bruce arrived at 5:20.

It's my first memory of real, pulsing anxiety. I didn't know then that the way I handled the situation -- acknowledging the worry, but setting aside a specific 'worry time' in which to indulge it -- is similar to an approach that's taught to people who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sometimes there are things to be upset about, or to worry about, or to fear. But we can't live if we let those things dominate our every thought and moment. Setting aside a specific time and place in which to allow yourself to be upset, e.g., 9-10pm on the sofa with a cup of tea, can free up the rest of the day for more productive and positive thoughts.

I'm not a worrier by nature. Perhaps that's due to disposition, or because I tend to be a rational thinker, or because I can generally talk myself down when I get wound up. I know anxiety from the outside in: I have one child with a severe anxiety disorder, and others with assorted anxiety issues. The anxiety I live with constantly is not my own.

I've learned over the years that anxiety rarely looks like anxiety from the outside. It shows up as irritability or anger, mimics ADHD, or manifests itself as rigid thinking. It causes some people to withdraw and grow silent, and makes others chatter non-stop. Few adults look worried when they are anxious. Few kids cower and cry. If you're looking at a pattern of otherwise inexplicable behavior, it's worthwhile to ask if anxiety could be causing it.

Here's another observation: anxiety is often seemingly inconsistent. It draws from a mix of the predictable and unexpected. A child who has trouble going to school every day may be fine flying cross-country alone. Someone who is paralyzed by asking for help may be perfectly comfortable on stage. A child may flourish one-on-one, and flounder in large groups. He may be able to give a speech in front of a class, but not know what to say in conversation. Or he may be able to give the speech one day but not another.

A third observation: There are techniques -- good techniques -- that can be taught to help people overcome anxiety. There is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which boasts truly impressive results. There is medication which can help (though as the saying goes, "The pill is not the skill"). But real progress can't be made by reason alone, because the opposite of fear isn't logic, but love. Which may be why kids in particular need a good hug when they're worried or upset.

1 comment:

  1. What a very lucid thoughtful post. I learned quite a few things. Thanks.