Fighting back against fears

Everybody gets worried sometimes. All our lives there are things that scare us. Psychoanalysts and psychologists, as well as neurobiologists, describe a normal sequence of threats to our good feelings about ourselves in the world.

Infants worry about abandonment, aloneness, and separation from the people they need to keep them safe. Toddlers worry that their feelings will overwhelm them and blast the universe. Kids fear that their parents won’t love them any more if they are naughty. Teens dread humiliation from their peers. Adults worry about security of relationships and practical life. Seniors worry about death. Everyone worries about their bodies being intact and free from debilitating or painful illness. Underlying all these worries that unfold through the life cycle is a profound fear of helplessness.

What can we do to feel sturdier? How can we fight back against the inevitable fears so that we can live our lives with more confidence and joy? How well are we doing at that task?

It doesn’t look like we are succeeding very well. There were 46 million prescriptions for Xanax in the United States last year, according to an article in the New York Times the other day. That works out to 1 in every 7 people, including children! Xanax is a strong (and addictive) anti-anxiety drug. Apparently our society’s current response to life’s difficult challenges is to sedate ourselves.

We will never eradicate worries and we shouldn’t be trying to. Emotions, including anxiety, are crucial signals -- they alert us that something is going on that merits our attention. A good feeling signals us “This is nice, I like it, how can I make this continue or happen again?” Anger tells us “I don’t like this. What can I do to change it?” Worry or fear tells us “This feels dangerous. What do I need to do to feel safe?”

The trouble arises when feelings swamp us. That is actually the definition of “trauma,” when something is so intense that it overwhelms our internal capacity to cope. Often people describe trauma in terms of outside events like natural disasters, violence or misfortune, but it is inner helplessness that is the actual trauma. The scale of the feelings and the vulnerability of our responses make something traumatic. An anxiety attack or a temper tantrum can leave a person of any age shaken and afraid.

Anybody can be overwhelmed by a massive experience that truly renders us helpless. All too often, though, it’s not the outside scale that does it – it’s the inner meaning of the experience that gets to us. For instance, most 4-year-olds have quite a lot of worries, especially at night. They may be afraid of the dark, or monsters, or robbers. Some kids are anxious about wolves, or cows, or clowns. Each child seems to choose her own.

Let's look at 4-year-olds as an example. 4-year-olds are dealing with a lot of strong feelings in their lives. They are working to get a handle on their wishes and emotions. Their beginning conscience development tells them that their angry wishes in particular are not good. It’s uncomfortable to want to hit your brother or push your daddy away from your mommy, so you can have her all to yourself, when you know you’ll get a bad feeling about it. One solution that most little kids try is to dump the feelings outside, hooking them on something, like robbers. But then they boomerang right back! Instead of the danger coming from inside, it feels like it’s coming from outside.

We can handle physical illness or danger better if we are physically fit. The same holds true of psychological threats. Building strong emotional muscles equips us to face psychological challenges. Just as we begin to build our bodily strength from birth on, by kicking, stretching, crawling, running, playing, dancing, exercise, and good nutrition and sleep, parents can help babies, children and teens build emotional strength by exercising their own emotional muscles and teaching their children to do the same.

Grownups can be more understanding of fears in children while simultaneously gently helping kids take the feelings back inside and take responsibility for their own wishes. After all, feelings and wishes are just that – they don’t make anything happen. It’s part of the important emotional muscle of distinguishing between thought and action that children build throughout their development.

And if the main grownups in children’s lives, their parents, teachers, grandparents, find that the fears are too big and won’t go away, a consultation with a professional, like a child psychoanalyst, can help in finding a growth-promoting solution to the problem. Rather than sedate troubles away, adults can offer children strength, emotional muscles that they can use for the rest of their lives to master anxiety and fight back against fears.

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