One, two, three, breathe. One, two, three, breathe.
I repeated the mantra to myself three times before I responded to my son. His anxiety was acting up, and he was inundating me with questions about the current situation worrying him. But while he was peppering me with questions, and looking to me to calm his fears, I was on the verge of a panic attack myself.
His anxiety was triggering my anxiety.
I wish I could say this was a one-time occurrence, but it actually happens quite frequently. My son and I both have generalized anxiety. Some days we are both good. Other days, I’m struggling or he’s struggling. But sometimes we both struggle at the same time. Sometimes, I’ll be feeling fine but then his anxiety triggers my anxiety. It’s a constant roller coaster ride in our house.
The good thing for me is that since I’m an adult, I can take medication to help control my anxiety. And I do. And it does. But my son is only ten, so that’s not a possibility for him. This means we have to come up with coping mechanisms.
When we first realized he was struggling with anxiety, we decided to take him to see a counselor. The counselor was able to help us realize that our son struggles with generalized anxiety, and did give us some coping mechanisms to help.
After a few months of seeing the counselor, our son was doing better and the counselor said we could just try the coping mechanisms at home and not come to counseling anymore. So that’s what we’ve been doing. And most of the time, it goes well. But some days it just doesn’t. And those are the days that are the hardest.
Here’s an example of how bad the “bad days” can really get.
We went camping over Memorial Day weekend, and on Saturday night a raccoon decided to visit our campsite. We were all sitting outside around the campfire when “Ricky” strolled into our site. He stayed around the edges of the site, and was clearly just looking for food; not being threatening at all. However, my son freaked out. He was afraid the raccoon was going to come closer to us and attack and bite, and that he’d give us rabies.
I know that may seem irrational, but that’s how anxiety works. Something triggers your anxiety, and then you have all of these thoughts and fears rushing through your head. And no matter how much you tell yourself they are irrational fears, they just keep coming. It’s all-consuming and overwhelming. Again, as an adult, taking medication helps lessen this problem, and allows you to gain control over those thoughts. But when a ten-year-old has an anxiety attack, you have to find a way to wade through it.
No matter how much my husband and I told our son that the raccoon was just looking for food and would leave us alone, it didn’t seem to help. My son was a wreck the rest of the night and had trouble sleeping. He woke up the next morning feeling anxious as well. So I started walking him through all of the coping mechanisms we use with him. I told him to tell his “Mr. Worry” (as coined by his counselor) to go away, to think about something that makes him happy in order to shift his focus elsewhere, had him say his prayers and recite his scripture verses about how God takes care of us and did my best to reassure him.
I so very much wanted all of us to enjoy the rest of our camping trip, despite my son’s panic attack. We went swimming, on a hike, and on paddle boats. As the day went on, my son recovered and forgot about the raccoon. But when we returned to our campsite, so did his anxiety. He began telling me how worried he was, asking me a multitude of “what if” questions about the raccoon, wondering if he would be safe…and I couldn’t handle it. My stress and anxiety started rearing its ugly head, and I had to step away before I exploded.
It’s so difficult because I know how my son is feeling. I understand all the fearful thoughts, the tight feeling in his chest, the uneasiness in his stomach; I understand because I experience it too. So I try to be sympathetic because I know what a horrible experience it is. But it’s so, so difficult to be sympathetic when my own anxiety comes out at the same time. My insides are screaming and I want to literally do the same. But I can’t because if I do, it will make my son feel worse. And that is the last thing I want.
So when his anxiety triggers my anxiety, I take a step back. Literally. I turn away from him, take a few steps away, and take some deep breaths until I’m able to respond to him in a calm manner. And if I don’t feel like I can, I ask my husband to help. Those are my coping mechanisms.
I’m hoping this gets better soon. I’m praying my son’s anxiety goes away, and he doesn’t have to continue to deal with it. But in the meantime, I’m figuring out what I can do when his anxiety triggers mine.