An Anxiety Exit Strategy You Can Use Now
One of the primary issues I address in my practice is the chronic anxiety of bright and gifted people of all ages. Anxiety is different from the occasional nervousness that creeps up in response to a situation, like meeting a new person, going to a new school or having a job interview. It's not feeling worried or afraid about an actual threat. That's our nervous system functioning the way it's meant to, to warn us of danger. Instead, it is an ongoing condition that for some, is incapacitating.
While a propensity for anxiety can be genetic, it can have other roots as well. Anxiety is basically when your nervous system is stuck on on. It's when your survival instincts are being triggered and we are stuck in a flight response, without an actual threat to our life. For children, this might look like constant worry about something happening to loved ones, performance at school or worry that others will be mad at them. Teens may have constant worry and aversion to social situations, worry about grades and performance, and worry they will somehow humiliate themselves. Adults, may worry about all of the same things, and more connected with being an adult.
While many people in our culture are struggling with anxiety, recent research from Gifted Research Outreach suggests gifted, highly intelligent, individuals may be even more likely than the average person to struggle with anxiety because the same brain structure that makes people gifted learners, also makes them more aware of threats and emotionally sensitive. Additionally, people with a higher cognitive abilities tend to have a greater awareness of their thought process, the countless possibilities of any choice or situation, and the world around them which can lead to feelings of overwhelm and panic stemming from experiencing an existential crisis. Asynchronous development, mismatched expectations, misattunement to needs, perfectionism and imposter syndrome can also be deeply connected to anxiety for gifted children and gifted adults alike.
Right now, I’m going to teach you more about anxiety, how it can affect our kids, and how to reduce the feelings of anxiety, and cope with anxiety that won’t go away. Anxiety can be obvious. You or your child may feel your heart beating fast, have racing thoughts, upset stomach and a feeling like you are shaking on the inside. Maybe you are even shaking on the outside too. It may be feelings of avoidance of social situations. It could be feelings of panic, doubt and thoughts of worthlessness and of being a failure. Someone overwhelmed with anxiety may even look like they are having a tantrum when their anxiety becomes so unbearable they begin to panic. This is common with children and teens. In more extreme incidents, severe anxiety can also manifest into self harming behaviors like cutting, scratching or burning. Some people may eventually shut down completely and refuse to leave home, go to school or work, try new things or interact with people. These are examples of "low functioning" anxiety.
There is also “high functioning" anxiety. Many people are able to keep themselves together, and may be very successful, but are screaming on the inside as they are dealing with all of these symptoms, but keeping it under wraps. High functioning, and high achieving people often fall into this category. They have the same symptoms as people who are crippled by their anxiety, they are able to function despite their symptoms, often hiding them.
As I mentioned before, anxiety is often genetic. Some people are more likely to have it than others. That said, even though some people may be genetically predisposed to having it, or more vulnerable, people can reduce the anxiety and cope in a positive way with any anxiety that isn’t resolved. I have worked with elementary school children, parents, surgeons and executives struggling with crippling anxiety and watched them heal, to be able to calm their nervous systems and to feel confident and empowered in their lives.
Think of anxiety as a manifestation of the fear response. When our lives are threatened our nervous system goes into fight, flight or freeze. The problem is, sometimes our flight response goes into over drive, in response to non-lethal threats, or in response to ongoing stress that presents itself to our nervous system as life threatening. There are different ways to address this.
One way is addressing our thought process. Another way is addressing our physiology, like by taking deep breaths. Often we as therapists, do both. Introducing mindfulness practices, and changing behaviors can also be helpful.
Here are some helpful ways to calm your nervous system and reduce anxiety:
Increase positive experiences. One way to resolve anxiety and increase capacity for negative emotions is to increase positive support, recognize strengths, and engage in pleasant activities. Being able to notice how you are feeling when being supported is important to increase your capacity for positive experiences, and reduce the effects of negative emotions. Even little things can help, like fidgeting, movement, engaging the senses. This can be helpful for everyone, and can be especially helpful for people with greater sensory sensitivities, and 2E people with ADHD or an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Practice deep breathing. Breath deeply in through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Focus on your breath, being careful to take a longer exhale than inhale. One way of doing this is to count as you breath, and aim for a count of 7 in and 11 out. Three to six breaths may be needed to have the calming affect you are seeking.
Sit and/or walk in nature. Going outside and noticing what is around you can be very calming, while walking helps to regulate your nervous system. If you are not able to go outside, looking out a window or at pictures of nature can have a similar effect.
Try to focus on your strengths and what you are doing right. Anxious thoughts often focus on what could be wrong, and distorted thoughts about our perceived shortcomings. Shifting our thoughts to what we can do, what we are good at, and what we are observing in the moment, can counter anxious thoughts
Engage the five senses. Notice 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you smell and 1 thing you can taste. We humans are sensual creatures and our senses can be a powerful ally to calm us. If your anxiety is being triggered by an overwhelm of one of your five senses, such as the noise of a crowded room, try engaging one of your other senses in a pleasant way to reduce your stress.
Engage in something creative. Studies have shown engaging in mindful drawing or creative writing daily can clinically reduce both anxiety and depression.
Talk or write through an existential crisis. Often when our brains are spinning out, it is too much to manage alone. If you are the parent of a gifted child, be careful not to dismiss their fears. They will not go away, and your child will continue to obsess about them. You will likely need to go down the rabbit hole with them to some extent, while staying tethered in the real world, at least some of the time. Be sure to acknowledge their emotions, and ask questions about what they are worried about, and why. Then, look for the ways they can feel empowered over what they are worried about. You can do this with yourself as well. If you aren't talkers, art can provide a powerful medium to process thoughts and emotions as well.
Managing expectations can help to reduce anxiety for gifted children and adults alike. Highly capable people often have high expectations for themselves, which can drive perfectionism, and excessive work habits. It can also be paralyzing and cause inaction. Either way, this is rooted in anxiety. One way to help, is to be able to recognize what the external expectations are versus self expectations, and to be able to prioritize tasks and quality of work. This may be difficult for children and teens to do alone, and they will need adult help to learn this skill. Adults may also benefit from increasing communication with others to better assess what external expectations are. Lastly, having outside interests where gifted people can be themselves, without limits can relieve the stress of having to meet external expectations provided this is something of their choosing, that they enjoy.
If you are the parent of a child struggling with anxiety:
Let them know you are there to help them without pressure or guilt.
Let them know they can call or text you to help them to feel safe.
Set reasonable limits without punishing.4.Enable your child to use their words to tell you how they are feeling, and acknowledge their feelings and talk through their fears with you.
Don’t threaten, give ultimatums or use guilt.
Help your children to develop exit strategies and plan for situations that may be difficult for them, like going to a party, meeting new people or trying a new activity.
Engage them in a breathing, relaxation exercise with you. One exercise I recommend is tracing one hand with the finger of the other. Take a deep inhale while tracing one side of the finger, stop at the top for one second and exhale tracing the other side. Focus on making the exhale longer than the inhale. Repeat with all of the fingers and thumb.
Help them to counter distorted thoughts in a kind and realistic way after providing understanding and emotional validation. For example: Ask: What is the evidence this is 100% true? Or ask: Is there another possible explanation?9.Help then to counter unhelpful thoughts. For example: Child: “I'm afraid I'll be humiliated if I go.” Possible counter: “I could have fun, and will use my exit strategy if I am overwhelmed.” Another example: “What if there’s a pop quiz tomorrow? I don’t want to go to school.” Possible counter: “I’ve been studying. I’ve done well on quizzes. I’ll do it again.”
Help them to feel safe. This can be done in a number of ways. You can help them imagine a safe place. Talk about a time when they feel safe, or even give a hug when needed.
Don’t panic if your child has anxiety. Do your best to stay calm, and take it seriously. If my suggestions are not enough, please seek the help of a professional in your area. Extra support can make a huge difference in helping yourself or your loved one to feel confident, and looking forward to each day.
About the Author:
Christy, is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, practicing in San Diego, California. She has over 11 years of experience working with children, teens, parents, families, couples and individual adults with complex psychological and relationship problems. She specializes in the needs of gifted, bright and high achieving people, as well as those who have suffered past trauma. Christy uses an eclectic approach, meeting the needs of whomever she is working with. Her work addresses the needs of the whole person, incorporating mind and body.