Friday, October 26, 2007

The Anti-Anxiety Talisman

Anxiety makes itself known to us when we are too young to even know the word or its meaning. A toddler experiences separation anxiety whenever a parent or loved one leaves. Infants may go through phases of becoming tense or fearful in the bath. My own daughter experienced her first night terror at 5 months--far too young to have experienced anything terrifying enough to cause such a reaction.

Children who experience anxiety also have marvelous coping skills to soothe themselves when anxiety tries to ruffle their feathers. Infants will suck their fingers or thumbs. Toddlers may find a binkie, lovey, or blankie when they're feeling out of sorts. Older children may keep a dream catcher above their beds, look at a favorite picture, or perform some other night time ritual to keep "the wild things" away.

We can learn from children's uniquely intuitive ways of coping and find our own talismans or mantras whenever we sense anxiety's presence. A client of mine repeated the mantra "I am my own safe harbor" as he felt anxiety approaching. A teenage client who often felt overwhelmed by social anxiety brought on by Asperger's Syndrome said he would "lay low" and try to "avoid trouble" like his favorite action-movie star. A woman who was deeply affected by OCD would make a brushing motion over shoulder, as if she were shooing away a pesky fly, trying to discourage anxiety from "landing" on her. The lyric "It may look like my wheels are spinning/I swear they're spinning for a reason" has given me comfort in my own life.

An anti-anxiety talisman will not end anxiety's appearances. It can, however, disallow anxiety from gaining purchase in areas of life where it is not welcome. The imporantant part of creating the talisman--whether it be a mantra, a visualization, a piece of music, or an object--is that it be meaningful and accessible to you should anxiety creep up unexpectedly. Anxiety may catch up with you from time to time, but it doesn't have to catch you off guard.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Coping with Parenting Anxiety, or Doing the Play-by-Play

It is written in stone that at some point, young children will engage in socially-undesirable behavior that will leave their parents mortified. Hitting, biting, scratching, soiling, name-calling, and food-throwing are but a short-list of embarassment-inducing behaviors. Why do kids do these behaviors desite our pleading with them to refrain? In short, kids are innately curious. They are curious about how we'll react; they're curious about what powers they can wield in an otherwise powerless position.

So, unless someone can figure out how to drain the curiosity out of a child (and really, who wants that?), the only avenue left for parents is to control their own reactions to unwanted behavior. If a child senses that a parent's anxiety over undesired behavior got her parent to react strongly, she will be curious to see if she can help bring about a similarly strong reaction again. The child is like a little scientist testing and re-testing her hypothesis. In order to quash the experiment, a parent will have to give the same, uninteresting result over and over again, until the child moves on to a new "hypothesis" to test.

So, how can a parent give a "boring" reaction to a child's throwing, cursing, spitting, (insert undesired behavior here)? By simply announcing the "play-by-play". This anti-parenting-anxiety technique requires the parent to simply "announce" what the child is doing, what emotions she might be feeling, and other possible strategies for coping with strong feelings. For instance, if a child bites her parent, the parent might say, "I see that you bit me. It looks like you're frustrated. I wonder if this pillow might be better for biting."

Sure, it's not a difficult strategy to use, but in the heat of the moment, it's easy to forget. That's why it's important to do the play-by-play at non-anxiety-producing times. For example, while a child is playing with blocks, you could say, "I see you're playing with blocks. It looks like you're stacking them to make a tower. I wonder how tall you plan on making this tower." I know it sounds a little hokey, but the more you practice it at non-anxiety-causing situations, the easier the words will come to you when anxiety wants you to react differently. When a child hears your calm, consistent reaction time and again, the more likely she is to move on to the next "hypothesis", whatever that may be. Perhaps it will involve some socially-valued behavior, such as sharing, in which you can "react strongly" with enthusiasm, love, and praise.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Zazen, Shavasana, or the Do-Nothing Meditation for the Mind

In high school, I had an English teacher who had a keen interest in Eastern philosophy. She introduced me to the Zen Buddhist concept of zazen, seated meditation, or as she described it, "do-nothing". In yoga, after a busy practice, one might end in shavasana, or "corpse pose." Both have at their heart the idea of allowing the body to rest, so that the mind might also quiet. Thoughts might enter one's mind--not to be analysed as good or bad--but to be observed with curious detatchment.

In my years of therapeutic collaboration, I have learned many ways of doing zazen from others. One client who has had difficulties with "perfectionism" for most of his life did zazen by lying in his bed, closing his eyes, putting on his headphones, and listening to sacred music or chanting. Some others say they practice zazen by silent prayer, or repeating a particular sacred verse or mantra. Other people I know use restorative yoga poses to help quiet their minds.

I have also found that for those (like me) who find it difficult to be physically still, it is possible to achieve zazen of the mind through kinesthetic activity. I know I have known periods of mental zazen while weeding, walking, running, swimming, cleaning, or doing yoga. I know plenty of knitters out there who would testify to the mental benefits of its simple repeated action.

I offer this idea of mental zazen as a counter-balance to anxiety's desire to "busy" the mind with its endless "chatter." Ask yourself, when do I get a break from thinking? When does thinking turn into "over-thinking"? How can I be more at peace with my thoughts? How can I resist the urge to re-live the past or to anticipate the future? What would it be like to simply observe my thoughts, such as the way an anthropologist might view a foreign culture? What "thinking space" can I open up that is currently occupied by anxiety, worry, perfectionism, or "should-isms"? If anxiety took up less "thought space", what might take its place?

Making time for zazen is not easy, I know--especially for all you parents out there! I hope to hear from readers about even more ways of practicing zazen, its benefits, and how it can become a regular and welcome practice in one's life.