It’s the most Irish of phrases isn’t it, we’ve all heard it from our quintessential Irish mammies and we’ve probably said it many times ourselves. For many people this will give some comfort and will ease their worries.
Now for the interesting bit, when it comes to someone who struggles with anxiety, especially a child hearing this phrase provides little to no comfort and for some people it will make them feel even worse.
Imagine these scenarios:
You’re 7 and can’t sleep at night because you’re worried that the baddies are going to come into the house at night and do bad things like steal your playstation or maybe even kidnap you.
You’re 9 and about to dance in your very first Feis and are scared that you’ll forget your routine, that you might fall on the stage and everyone will laugh at you and you’ll come last and feel like you can never go back to dancing again because of the embarrassment.
You’re 13 and are worried about moving to secondary school, worried that no-one will talk to you, that you won’t be able to figure out how to go to 11 different classrooms, that you’re going from being the biggest in the school in 6th class to the smallest again in 1st year, that you won’t be able to cope with the homework.
You’re 15 and worried that you’re going to do the Junior Cert, worried that you don’t do well and if you don’t do well in the junior cert and if that happens you’ll definitely struggle with the leaving cert and won’t get the points you need and then all your friends will get in to college and you’ll be left behind and you’re life will be over
So why doesn’t reassurance work?
All of the things that the kids above are fearful of are technically possible. People do break into houses, people do forget dancing steps, struggle with homework and state exams.
Also, think about the wider context, the news on the TV in the background at home in the kitchen, the newspaper headlines, the news on the radio on the drive to school in the morning. How much of the content of the news is about murders, ATM robberies, car crashes, shootings in the USA. Every day we, and our kids whether we’re aware of it or not are exposed to the realities of human existence, that bad s#hit happens. We may not think they’re listening in or paying attention, but they are.
For us to feel better when we feel excessively anxious we need to regain trust that the world around us is predictable and safe. When we know that bad things are happening all around us but our parents and carers tell us that it’ll be grand, it will never happen to you / us we’re left confused, what do we believe? There’s something else that happens that makes this even more difficult…
When we are really anxious, maybe even panicking about something then we will experience uncomfortable, sometimes very uncomfortable physical sensations inside our bodies
Most of us will experience some of the above physical sensations when we feel anxious. For someone who really struggles with anxiety they can experience most of the above and all they want is for those really really uncomfortable feelings to go away.
So we’ve now got a situation where we have a thought in our head What if (insert catastrophic thought here) and combined with our stomach doing somersaults, breathing like we’ve sprinted 200 meters and heart feeling like it’s going to burst out of our chest like in the movie Alien.
Is it a surprise then that ” don’t worry it’ll be grand” doesn’t make us feel better?
Ok so I’ve said what doesn’t work, that’s not much use, what can we do?
For younger children we need to make sure they understand what is happening inside their body and there minds “I can see that you’re really feeling anxious about this, I can understand why you might feel like that“. Children instinctively don’t know how to make sense of or label what they’re feeling inside so we need to help them to label what they’re feeling.
We need to acknowledge that the what if thoughts and worries possibly could occur but when our anxiety kicks in it makes us believe that the potential bad event is much more likely to happen than it really is.
The way I try to illustrate is is by thinking about of all things spiders!
Anxiety makes us feel like the spider is absolutely huge and a massive risk to us and something to get away from as soon as possible. When we take off the anxiety lens that we sometimes look at the world through we can see that the spider still exists, we’re not denying it’s actually there but it’s a lot smaller and less scary than our anxiety lens tells us it is and our urge to run away from it should be (technically) less strong.
So when we accept that risk exists and bad things do sometimes happen we can then move onto how do we manage it?
So for the 7 year old, acknowledging that yes there are baddies but Mum & Dad keep the house safe, we lock the doors at night and have a house alarm. However if a baddie did come into the house then Mum or Dad will ring the Garda and the baddie will run away as he won’t want the Garda to catch him.
For each example or any worry that we might struggle with, we need to act opposite to what our anxiety wants and we need to actually think more about the thoughts we worry about. We need to move to thinking:
Ok what are the chances that this could happen, is this really a high risk of happening or is this just my anxiety making me think it will happen?
If the absolute worst thing was to happen, then ok what are my options? I might not like all the options but it’s better to have some options than none
So instead of saying “It’ll be grand, don’t worry about it” maybe try moving to “I can see why you might feel anxious about that but anxiety is an emotion and even though it feel’s uncomfortable or upsetting right now it will pass”
How can we be so confident that anxiety will pass? Think of the last time you got really really anxious. Now ask yourself are you feeling that same level of anxiety right now? Hopefully not. Which is proof that you generally don’t stay really really anxious all the time and it will have to come down.
We want to aim to support young people to experience anxiety in situations they might otherwise avoid so that they come to the most helpful thought and experience they will ever have when it comes to building confidence in managing anxiety
“It wasn’t as bad as I (my anxiety told me it would be) thought it would be