The Many Faces of Anxiety

I had absolutely no idea what anxiety looked like thirty years ago when I became a parent. My only familiarity with anxiety and how it looked was my Mom being a “worry wart” or a friend being unable to get in an airplane without an escort to fly. I thought of anxiety as something few people ever really had and certainly I would never had and never would experience. Therefore, I had no idea how often I would encounter anxiety while raising a family of four children and being a marriage family therapist. Boy, was I ever wrong with a capital “W!” Anxiety looks so very different in so many different settings. It’s sort of like a Dr. Seuss book – You know, the one that says, “In a box, with a fox, up a tree, you and me…?” Well, you sort of have the idea, don’t you?

The Anxious Couple

My first experience of anxiety I would not have thought of as anxiety at all. It was when my newly married husband and I had an argument. Suddenly, he wouldn’t talk. I mean, the man just got strangely quiet. And I, in turn, had many, many words. It wasn’t until quite some time later I discovered we were both experiencing anxiety when we argued. Most likely at the same level of anxiety for both of us, also. Dr. John Gottman refers to this type of anxiety as “Flooding.” Our pulse rates go higher than normal, we experience elevated emotions, we might even think we’re ‘on point’ in our ability to speak eloquently. However, all the research about relationships states this is rather delusional. When we experience “Flooding” due to having anxiety, the logical part of our brain shuts down. We seldom say what we mean. We often say things we don’t mean. And research shows we wouldn’t be a good witness to an accident, let alone an argument. This is when couples usually say things like, “That’s not what I said!” or “I heard you say…” “Yes! You did!” “No! I didn’t” Couples’ therapists are often teaching couples to manage this discomfort in their communication. Very seldom do the individuals recognize this as a symptom of anxiety showing up in their communication. When couples recognize they are communicating out of fear, rather than love, they often can choose to use interventions for themselves that even out the anxiety and allow them to communicate what they are really wanting in their relationships – for themselves and their beloved partners. You can read more about our journey at my previous blog posts starting at "Horses In My Marriage Bed - Part 1." You may be able to recognize the anxiety in relationships once this has been explained. Have you ever heard children squabble after a change has happened in their lives? Or before school starts? Or after they have had a scary experience of some sort? Children and adults both have anxiety. The symptoms and behaviors of children and that of adults are very similar. Sometimes, it’s as if adults don’t learn coping skills to calm their anxiety.

What We Can Learn From Anxious Children

We often think of the anxious child as a little boy or girl who is fearful and withdrawn. But – what about the child that has a LOT of words and wants to “be seen?” These children will sometimes be so overwhelmed with emotions, they will “act out” in some way. Usually not at the most convenient times and not in the most convenient ways. But that’s what being a child is, isn’t it? Anxiety may often have genetic roots within families. However, this is sometimes difficult to determine because parents who are anxious are raising children who are anxious. We simply cannot give what we don’t have. Regardless of whether we are the parents or not. That is why some of the latest research shows the best way to help anxious children is to teach parenting skills to the parents that include self-soothing and self-regulating skills. What I found in my parenting, as well as my counseling, is that many parents misinterpret their children’s behavior. Parents will think of their children as “disobedient,” rather than so overwhelmed within their little bodies they simply cannot contain themselves. How does this show up?  A child cries and throws themselves down; A child clings to their parents; A child bites with frustration; A child lashes out and hits someone; and/or A child becomes bossy. When our four children were young, one child had fallen off a bunk bed, resulting in a coma and traumatic brain injury symptoms. Another child was born with a seizure disorder resulting in seizures lasting up to forty-five minutes. As you can imagine, when these events happened, each child dealt with anxiety in different ways. One child experienced hypervigilance with everything. Each time we would let the children stay with a friend, he would inform the adult how the other children were to be watched. He simply would not let the friend be “in charge” of the other siblings without his supervision. He is still a young man who wants to make certain everyone is OK "on his watch." You can recognize this “anxiety” in a child? Have you ever seen a controlling adult? One child became extremely withdrawn and would busy herself in the busyness of being helpful. She would suddenly sweep the garage and take on responsibilities without being asked. Rather than talk about or acknowledge the trauma that was going on around her, she would become useful and just a bit disconnected. Today, if you are experiencing a crisis, this young woman is the person you want to help you get things done. You may be able to recognize this “anxiety” in a child. Have you ever seen a workaholic adult? One child would suddenly complain of a stomach ache or “not feeling well.” Rather than acknowledging the fear she would feel sometimes about her brother’s seizures or the trauma she experienced when her dad had a heart attack, within a week after a traumatic event, she would need to miss school due to the ailment she was feeling. This young woman is empathetic and caring. She feels with every fiber of her body and has to take extra care of herself when a crisis happens. You probably recognize this child’s symptoms of anxiety becoming physical symptoms. Have you seen an adult with headaches and stomach difficulties?

Solutions to Anxiety

Just like we would teach a child how to calm their fears once we recognize these behaviors, we can offer this same “self-parenting” skills to ourselves. We can take these five steps to calm anxiety
  1. Good nutrition - Staying away from sugar and caffeine will help in the reduction of anxiety. Just as you would make certain a child’s diet was healthy if they were having behavioral difficulties, the same is true for an adult.
  2. Listen to calming music – Music can change moods easier than most anything else. There are actually playlists to help ease the nerves. Just like lullaby music can help assist in bedtime rituals, a playlist of happy music can reduce anxiety.
  3. Allow time to color or create - Research shows the brain calms itself down when we color in a coloring book. There are now adult coloring books available to assist in stress reduction. This creative endeavor works for children also.
  4. Take a walk in nature – Walking in nature on a dirt trail with the leaves and the trees helps the brain to relax and take in the scene around. In one study of adults who walked 90 minutes in nature, they showed a reduction in stress and anxiety as compared to those who walked in urban atmospheres. When the brain is focused on keeping your balance and taking in the sounds and scenery surrounding us, we simply relax. Everyone knows having children spend time in nature and play helps them to unwind. This is true for adults also.
  5. Connection with others – Research upon research shows people who have healthy, secure connections with others have less depression and anxiety. One of the best things we can do is call a friend when we are feeling anxious. This is also one of the best things to do for a child who is experiencing anxiety.

Anxiety is Part of Life

Regardless of whether you have a regular feeling of anxiety or seldom experience what you recognize as anxiety, anxiety is a part of life. We will experience it at some point in our lives. I simply didn’t recognize the symptoms of anxiety until I was married. And with each child, I could see different ways anxiety was manifested when trying times happened. As parents, we want to recognize anxiety in our children. The hope is we will be parents who care enough to see the symptoms and teach our children the skills they need to manage their fears and overwhelming feelings. As adults, it is healthy to recognize our feelings of overwhelm and parent ourselves by doing calming, secure things to comfort ourselves. We will grow through managing our fears and sense of overwhelm. And by comforting ourselves, we will have more calming behavior with others. If we didn’t learn it as a child, we can learn skills as an adult. Because it is never too late to learn.

Kate Pieper LMFTThe above is meant to be encouragement. It is not professional therapy, but good sound advice from someone who has walked countless individuals through trauma-From surviving to thriving through A Brave Compassionate Journey.

If you are interested in meeting with me professionally, feel free to contact me at or 530-268-3558. We will see if I am a good fit for you.   Kate has worked with victims for over 20 years as a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist in private practice and currently specializes in working with first responders and their families. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Selah Counseling Services, a nonprofit counseling center. Kate is Certified in EMDR and Certified in CISM. She teaches Resiliency for law enforcement agencies and does Critical Incident Debriefings for law enforcement agencies, fire agencies, and private corporations. She has become an expert in Compassion Fatigue Prevention and the ever-needed ability to have an emotional safety vest in our careers. As a wife of 1 for 32 years, mother of 4 and G-Ma of 2, Kate practices what she teaches. In her spare time, Kate enjoys training for, and completing triathlons. Through Kate's families' experiences of heart attacks, seizures, comas and now, as a survivor of breast cancer, Kate is known for resiliency in her life and her career.