Family Therapy: Learning to Keep Anxiety in Check
The pandemic has generated fear and worry for many people, including children. Here are some tips to avoid being overwhelmed by it.
Anxiety always tries to help. Sometimes, it tries too hard.
I’m writing this just days before achieving “full vaccination” status—two weeks after my final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. I’ve read the CDC reports (I’m geeky like that), and I know what it says I can do afterward with relative safety. I can see vaccinated friends and family. I can go to ball games again. I can even eat on restaurant patios. At least, I can do those things until anxiety pops up and says, “Wait just a second …”
I don’t blame anxiety for this; it’s done a good job of protecting my loved ones and me during the pandemic. It’s also a demanding taskmaster—“Why would you even think about doing that!?!”—but that played a role in keeping us safe. (It helped that I’m able to see clients via video from my home office; many people didn’t have that kind of privilege in their work and were at much higher risk of exposure. God bless all of you who managed that.)
But since I’m lucky enough that I can stay bubbled when necessary, my anxiety sometimes loses a sense of balance.
Me: “Hmmm, maybe we can meet our friends on the patio for pizza.”
Anxiety: “Take a tape measure to make sure there’s proper distance between the tables!”
Family member: “Now that we’re vaccinated, I’m going to Costco next week.”
Anxiety: “Costco? Are you crazy? Do you know how many people go there? Wear seven masks!”
Me: “We can finally hang out with our buddy’s kids again.”
Anxiety: “But the kids aren’t vaccinated! What if they develop a mutant strain only spread by people under 4 feet tall?”
I suppose I could avoid stooping down, but that’s beside the point.
My anxiety is simply overfunctioning. Now that vaccinated people can do more things more safely, anxiety needs to learn to take a step back again. Anxiety is helpful when it’s part of your decision-making process; it’s not helpful when it whacks you repeatedly with a club of potential consequences.
It’s important for kids and families to slow things down when anxiety gets out of balance. It helps to take a deep breath and then blow it out through your lips as slowly as possible—imagine blowing out a birthday candle in super-slow motion (while ignoring that blowing out candles spreads a ton of germs on the cake).
Maybe it’s better to picture a bottle of bubble solution: The slower you blow onto the wand, the bigger the bubble gets. That deep breathing relaxes your body and slows down your heart rate, which helps you feel more in charge. It also grounds you in the present moment, which is especially important in dealing with anxious feelings. Anxiety is about the past and the future—trying to remind us of something bad in the past and/or trying to prevent something bad in the future. Deep breathing helps you stay rooted in the immediate moment.
(By the way, this is a mindfulness technique. Don’t tell that to the kids or your therapy-averse friends; it’s our little secret.)
We don’t want anxiety to go away completely. It’s an effective early-warning system for things we need to handle. We just want to feel balanced again instead of overwhelmed by it. We’re relearning that balance as we venture out again, and that’s normal.
When you take those first steps, make sure to check updated CDC recommendations from time to time: Those guidelines help keep anxiety in check by keeping you informed. Nothing cuts the edge off anxiety like knowledge; our brains can create scenarios 10 times worse than what’s actually happening.
Carl Grody is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Online Family Counseling.
This story is from the Summer 2021 issue of Columbus Parent.