Anxiety treatment is stressful. From, “Where are my keys!” all the way to what my friend John would say, “I'm on a balcony 30 floors up with one foot on the rail and the other on a banana peel!” Your child’s anxiety WILL go up if you get them treatment. We often get the question regarding our anxiety program, “Will starting Turnaround cause my child to get more anxious?” and, “Will being exposed to the fears of other kids in the program give my child some new things to worry about?” Our answer: "Yes. It might." Anxiety treatment causes anxiety. If this is the point that you think, “Cause more anxiety? Why would I do that,” then you have just discovered the reason why anxiety is so hard to overcome.
My daughter’s fear started over throwing up. Not actually doing it, mind you, just the possibility of tossing her cookies. Recently, I was talking about that and using it to illustrate facing fears when a parent whose child has a similar fear said, “I’m not doing that because he might throw up.” (I was describing how the video clip, “Who Wants Chowder?” from Family Guy could be a good exposure step.) I’m not pointing fingers; I thought the same thing when my daughter’s fear began. We would avoid the words, sounds, TV shows, jokes, news or anything that might suggest regurgitation.
We made a mistake. A hindsight thing, 20-20 and all that.
You may think what I thought at the time. “I have to keep her from panicking!” I wanted to protect her from those terrible episodes. (It’s hard wired into parent-ness. If she is in pain I need to make it stop!) As I said, we would avoid anything that might bring up “the thing” and cause the panic. If we could keep away the triggers life could go on. We would tell her all the reasons why she didn’t have to worry. “You haven’t done “that” in years, you are not sick, it won’t happen, no need to worry, etc.” (Did you catch the reason this would never work? You can't prove that throwing up will NEVER happen.)
With all due respect to the natural parental urge to protect, trying to talk her into mental avoiding was a mistake. Here was part of our major mistake: We treated the panic like it was dangerous. She thought both vomit and panic were dangerous. By avoiding we acted like they were dangerous. We were all wrong.
Playing in a busy highway, that is dangerous. So are walking down dark alleys by yourself or feeding the "cute" bears in the forest. Definitely avoid those. Do NOT avoid things that aren’t actually dangerous, like upchucking (My mom’s oblique moniker. I suppose it was better than her saying “barf”) or panic. Neither one is dangerous.
The problem was not vomit or vomiting but the BELIEF about it. Throwing up is unpleasant but NOT dangerous. She believed it was terrible, embarrassing and dangerous. That mistaken belief was the problem.
Anxious beliefs have to be disproved. They have to be put to the test. Will something make me throw up? If it does will it be as bad as I think? Facing means feeling fear first. When you start facing you still believe it enough to activate the fear. You won't go straight to disproving without feeling it first.
“Fight or flight” is the name we give to our bodies activating response to danger. It is what we describe as terror, horror, fear, excitement, rage, etc. It supercharges our bodies to help us deal with danger, challenge and obstacles. It is not an infallible system. Anxiety disorders are mistakes by this defense system. They are false alarms.
“Fight or flight” is an activating response designed for real danger. “Ewww, Yuck!” is the response for puke. A danger reaction like terror doesn't fit. Terror is for looking out of your doublewide at a tornado, treating a major client to an expensive dinner then discovering you don't have your wallet, or riding the Intimidator 305 at King’s Dominion Amusement Park.
Your child has to disobey her "fight or flight" system while it shouts, flashes and shakes its warning. You are going to feel that when you disobey it. It is just a false alarm, a mistake. Noisy and powerful but wrong.
You have to disobey your parental urge to protect her from distress. One of the hardest things you may ever do is see that scared look on your child’s face, “Help me!” and respond, “No, you can do this.”
You can ease into the fear, face it a little at a time, that is fine. But you can’t avoid it. If you run across an anxiety cure that promises a way to skip over the hardship right to peace and bliss don’t waste your money. Treatment causes stress. It has to. Mistakes require correction.