An Exercise for Dealing with “What-If” Anxieties

I know I don’t talk much (or at all) about it, but my daughter suffers from terrible anxiety.  She was diagnosed officially with Anxiety at the age of 11, but the truth is, I have known that she deals with this since she was 6 years old.  She was that student in the 1st grade.  She screamed, cried, kicked, hit and ran every morning when I took her to school.  Every.  Single. Morning.  I know you have all seen kids act like that at school drop off time because I’ve seen them too.  I remember when I was a kid and seeing a girl in my class do it.  I also volunteered with the elementary students my senior year of high school and I witnessed it with a couple of kids.  I also know that you may think that these kids are just being bratty, or misbehaving, but what you may not realize is that these kids are not just misbehaving, they are having full-on anxiety attacks.  They need your support, not your judgment.

Back in the 1st grade, my daughter was having full-on “what-if” anxiety.  Her big thing then was “What if my mommy got in a car crash while I am at school?”  You guys.  She literally fought me to go to school every day because she was afraid I would get in a car crash and die while she was gone.  Can you imagine the anguish that would put on a child every day?  Before I developed postpartum depression, I have never dealt with anxiety from myself, and I am ashamed to admit that I honestly didn’t know how extreme it was.  I was frustrated with her.  I wanted her to just go to school, enjoy learning and have fun with her friends.  “How hard could that be?”  It was only 1st grade after all.  I did not have the right mindset to deal with an anxious child.  I had never dealt with it and didn’t understand how debilitating it could be.  In time though, we learned to get through.  It’s worth noting that for the first several years (through 5th grade for our daughter and through 2nd for our son) our kids went to a small Charter School.  Their school had 200 students with only k-8 in attendance and this school was relatively close to home.  That meant fewer kids and mom could be there to get her in an instant when she was having a hard time.  And let’s be honest here, I picked her up all the time.  It has always been important to me that she knew I was there to support her always.  I may not have understood her feelings, I did know that she needed her mom.  I did let her miss way too much school though.

When she approached middle school we began discussing transferring her to the nearby larger, public school.  We knew that if we waiting until high school, it would be virtually impossible because of her nerves.  Plus, where we live, there are several elementary schools with just one middle school and one high school.  That meant that 6th grade is where all kids come together.  There would be plenty of “new” kids to the school and we figured that this would be a great time to send her and it was.  The change was great.  She discovered new friends and amazing new classes that she fell in love with, but she also discovered that going from 200 students throughout 9 grades to 1000 students in 3 grades was definitely overwhelming.  While she didn’t fight and scream and kick, she often teared up and begged me to let her stay home.  Throughout the 6th grade, I found myself giving in to that over and over again, so I decided it was time to put a stop to it.  At this point, it was time to go to the doctor and get help, which is when she received her officially diagnosis.

With various treatments over the last couple of years, her anxiety symptoms have gotten much better but she still has her good days and her bad days and she still needs help.  She has recently been doing a lot of worrying about whether or not her friends like her still.  No reason for her to feel this way other her “what-if” anxieties that she faces (What if they stopped liking me over the weekend?  What if they never liked me to begin with and have just been pretending? These are the kinds of questions she asks herself).  At a recent follow-up visit with her doctor, we learned an amazing trick to dealing with those what-if anxieties that has helped her already!

In this world of non-stop mental illness news, I think we could all use a little bit of help in dealing with our anxieties and panic attack symptoms.  I feel like if the things we have learned can help someone else, I would really, really like to share them.

Okay, so here is a good anxiety exercise that we learned recently for dealing with “what-if” anxieties that has helped tremendously.  I highly suggest doing this activity every single day, even when your anxiety symptoms aren’t that high:

Get out a piece of paper to write on, and think about your “What-If” anxiety trigger.  Now, on your piece of paper, write down 3 reasons why this trigger may not be true.

Here is the example that we used to help my daughter on that first day:

Anxiety trigger: What if my friends don’t like me?

Why this anxiety trigger may not be true (her answers):

  1. They have never said they don’t like me.
  2. They smile and wave at me in the hallways and talk to me in class.
  3. Nothing has happened that would have changed our friendships.

It seems so simple really, but as it was explained to us, when you start doing this every single day and writing it down, you will eventually start to retrain your brain, so that when you start having those anxiety symptoms and “what-if” worries, your initial thoughts will be the reasons why these anxieties may not be true, as opposed to your anxious mind convincing you that they are.