There was an 8-year-old crying at after-school pick up today. She was almost hysterical, racing back and forth, saying she wanted to go home, and that she was afraid. I asked the counselor what was going on and it seemed the young girl had an untied shoe lace and felt she was going to die as a result. The counselor kept telling her to stop crying, that she wasn’t going to die, there was nothing to be afraid of and to stop it. This just increased the child’s hysteria. I walked over and said, “It’s okay to be afraid. It can be scary.” Immediately, she stopped crying and looked at me. I said. “Can you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth like me?” and I began to breathe slowly, modeling what I wanted her to do. She began to do it, eyes locked with mine. We breathed together and mellowed the beast of anxiety. I write this not as a kudos to me, but as a show of compassion for people who experience any level of anxiety. It is a nasty companion. I believe that the young girl truly felt that she was gong to die, and here’s why: Her heart was probably pounding incredibly fast; her head was probably hurting from clenching her jaw; she was jumpy and probably felt out of control. All of these symptoms of anxiety can be terrifying, which just increases the anxiety.
Anxiety about anxiety can cause anxiety.
The fastest way to stop anxiety is to pop a Xanax. Gotcha! The even faster way is to breathe. Slowly and steadily. And walk through your body: Is my heart racing? Check. Is my head hurting? Check. Am I sweating? Check. Thank you, body, for showing me I need to get more oxygen to my brain. Breathe. Oxygen to the brain helps slow down the train of anxiety and allows you to see things a bit more clearly. That high-pitched hysteria you were feeling is now ebbing to a softer edginess. The more you breathe, the gentler you feel. You’re in charge again, not anxiety. And talk to yourself the way I spoke to that young girl. No judgment. “It’s okay to be scared.” I didn’t agree or disagree that there was something to be afraid of; I allowed her to feel what she was feeling. I didn’t fight her anxiety; I invited it to the table. And in that gesture, anxiety released its grip. Give yourself the gifts of breathing and no judgment. Share this with your family, friends, coworkers — anyone you know who has slight or more intense anxiety. I don’t propose that medication is unnecessary. In fact, medication can be amazing. But relying on medication alone can feed the feeling of helplessness so many anxiety sufferers experience. It’s empowering, and immediately effective, to be an active participant in managing one’s anxiety.
You’ve got the power.
This article first appeared The Huffington Post, 31 March 2015.