- How often do you worry?
- I can’t stop worrying.
- I don’t really worry much at all.
- Not constantly, but occasionally.
- Pretty frequently. You might call me a worrywart.
- What is your typical night’s sleep like?
- What’s sleep? There is no way I could sleep with bills to pay and locks to check, I’m up all night worrying.
- Perfect. I’m out when my head touches the pillow.
- Most nights, I sleep well if I know what I’m going to do the next day to resolve my anxieties.
- I often wake up in the middle of the night because of stress.
- What happens if you’re listening to the news and it’s all bad?
- If it’s a hurricane in New Orleans, I stock up on drinking water. If it’s a home invasion, I get a better alarm system.
- Not much. I just kind of ignore it. It’s going to happen whether I like it or not.
- I stop listening. I’d rather turn off the radio than make myself more anxious.
- I listen up. You cannot have too much information.
- How do you usually feel in the morning?
- I don’t like getting out of bed.
- Ready to go.
- Slow. There’s so much to do and I already feel like I’m late.
- What kinds of things do you like to read?
- Anything that helps me learn about how to prepare for the future.
- Light material. Nothing too heavy.
- Books that have a comedic edge, but feel real at heart.
- Newspapers. I need to know everything going on in the world.
- What’s your reaction if you find out that you got a promotion at work?
- You worry that now the standards are higher and you are going to let people down.
- You totally did not anticipate that!
- You feel that you earned it.
- You feel anxious that something bad is now going to happen. That’s what always happens when something good occurs.
Rebbe let me stay with Mrs. Rosen, the guidance counselor, until my parents could come for me. You know what, Pinny?” Shimon said, sounding a bit happier, “she told me she worries a lot too!”
“What does she worry about?”
“She said she worries that she left the door unlocked even though she knows she locked it. She said that worrying too much can be like the yetzer hara, a real powerful force inside of you, but your job is to control that force. She said it’s like a monster that wants to take over and make you its ‘slave.’ You need to talk back to it and let it know who’s really in charge.”
Every time I let a worrying thought take over, I am feeding that creature and making it stronger. The more worries I let into my thoughts, the bigger the monster. Boy, you can imagine how big my monster is!
But if I say “no” to the monster and don’t feed it, it will get weaker and weaker, Mrs. Rosen promised me. “At first you’ll feel uncomfortable,” she said. “For example, your hands will really feel dirty or germy after you wash them. But you can fight that feeling by telling the monster, “You’re inventing this nonsense to get me to feed you, to make me your slave. I won’t listen!”
The above is an excerpt from my upcoming book My Friend, the Worrier about Pinny and his friend Shimon. Shimon has anxiety and struggles to keep it under control. He learns that anxiety is like a monster that he feeds when he continues to think anxious thoughts. When he refuses to give into those anxious thoughts, he shrinks the monster, forcing it to disappear.
The book comes out just in time for the back-to-school season because beginnings and transitions are always anxiety-provoking. Children are nervous to start a new year with a new teacher and possibly new friends. Parents are anxious to transition from summer routines to school routines. And, of course, teachers are worried about getting back to work in the classroom. But, as I say in my book, we can “Shrink your fears. Make the worry monster disappear!”
In My Friend, the Worrier Shimon is wrestling with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Dr. Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph of the Emours Center for Children’s Health Media states that people “with OCD become preoccupied with whether something could be harmful, dangerous, wrong, or dirty – or with thoughts about bad stuff that might happen. With OCD, upsetting or scary thoughts or images, called obsessions, pop into a person’s mind and are hard to shake.”
The World Health Organization estimates that around 2.5% of the world’s population is affected by OCD, an anxiety disorder, which ranges from children to senior citizens. Evidence is strong that OCD tends to run in families. Of course, having a genetic tendency for OCD does not mean people will develop OCD, but it means there is a stronger chance they might.
There are many other anxiety disorders that affect children such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), social phobia, and separation anxiety. In addition, test anxiety is a particularly prevalent disorder during back to school time. Lynn D’Arcy of KidsHealth explains that “test anxiety is actually a type of performance anxiety – a feeling someone might have in a situation where performance really counts or when the pressure’s on to do well.” People can experience performance anxiety when they are about to “try out for the school play, sing a solo on stage, get into position at the pitcher’s mound, step onto the platform in a diving meet, or go into an important interview.”
When you are under stress, your body releases the hormone adrenaline, which prepares your body for danger. Adrenaline gears up the body to either fight the threat or run away from the threat. This hormone causes the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as sweating, rapid heart rate, or hyperventilation.
Like other anxiety disorders, test anxiety can produce a tortuous cycle. The more you think about the bad things that can happen, the stronger the anxiety becomes. This makes you less able to concentrate on the material at hand and therefore more likely to do poorly on the test.
What To Do About Anxiety
Recently, I heard Dr. Paul Foxman, the author of Dancing with Fear and The Worried Child, talk about how to alleviate anxiety. He suggested that treating anxiety is a lot like hitting a homerun:
- 1st base: you recognize the problem
- 2nd base: you decide you want to change the behavior
- 3rd base: you devise a strategy to change the behavior
- Home: you score when you implement the change on a regular basis
Dr. Foxman will be giving a full-day workshop on children’s anxiety in Brooklyn on November 17. As a parent and educator, I find his help invaluable. Whether you or your child is suffering from an anxiety disorder or just plain old anxiety, there are still many things you can do in order to help control the anxiety. As a general rule, distinguish between what is in our control and what is out of our control. We can control ourselves, but not those around us. Unpredictability and uncertainty are associated with anxiety. So you choose how to spend your time, how to maintain your relationships, how to care for your children, and live according to your core values.
Some other tips for helping your child deal with anxiety include:
Rest. When you sleep, your body relaxes. Therefore, help your child get as much sleep as his body needs.
Exercise. Exercise is great for your body and brain! Exercise relieves stress and fights anxiety. Get your child kicking a ball or running around the track.
Proper nutrition. Highly processed or sugary foods can feed anxiety. Eat foods that are high in vitamin B and low-fat proteins.
Daily routines. Routines help calm anxious children because they allow them to feel in control. Establish daily routines and do your best to stick to them (without stressing out!).
Replace worry with positive and rational thinking. Help your child change his thinking. When he wants to think an anxious thought, help him transform it to a positive or rational one. With practice, this can become a way of life.
Model calm. If you are anxious, there is no way that you are going to help your child overcome his anxiety. Therefore, work on your own anxiety. In the end, it will benefit your child as well.
Register now for an anxiety workshop by Dr. Paul Foxman on November 17. Please call Mrs. Schonfeld at 718-382-5437 for more information.