Part of the reason why Anxiety feels so distressful is that we often feel it so intensely. We have lots of thoughts every moment of every day, but the ones that cause us to feel anxious or fearful stick around because of the physical reaction they cause in our body. All other thoughts temporarily stop. It's like time freezing suddenly. The anxious thought is suddenly the only one in the room--it's the only thing we can hear!
And sometimes our body starts to feel uncomfortable. When it gets really intense, we suddenly feel our heart beating strong and fast--something we usually don't even recognize. And that might create more anxious thoughts. And now, since we're feeling anxious, our brain will create even more anxious thoughts.
Anxiety can feel Intense.
But it doesn't have to.
Introduce a little Levity
Sometimes the sheer intensity of the anxious thought and its accompanying sensations is exactly what makes it so powerful. Introducing a little levity can help take away the anxiety's power.
Of course, when someone is having a panic attack, it's not a good idea to crack a joke. By then, the anxiety is too much. Introducing this kind of levity will only feel invalidating, leave the person feeling more alone, and likely more angry and anxious. So here's what helpful levity looks like:
1. Levity can be introduced by yourself, by a trusted other, for example, parent, friend or therapist.
2. If you plan to introduce levity to someone else, let them know in advance that you will be offering this strategy when they need it. Make sure that they understand what you will be doing and why--and that they are on board. This goes for kids and adults.
3. When you FIRST NOTICE the anxious thought, respond with something like "Can we play with this a little bit?". Maybe the thought is that a robber is going to come in during the nighttime. After asking to play with the thought, you might introduce the idea that the child has slept in the bed for "3, 650 night" (or whatever would be their number, age x 365). Has anything ever happened before? What would happen if a robber did come? Would the dog lick them in their face? Would they see your owl statue out front and run away? Would they hear dad's snoring and run away scared? Would they smell brother's dirty socks and run away before they even tried to come in? You might remind them that the only person "breaking in" is going to be mom, who is going to "steal a few kisses".
If you're an adult having an anxious thought, you can respond similarly. If you're thinking "I'm going to be late!", you might imagine an angry, uptight principal yelling at you for being late, or you might imagine yourself sitting at work with a dunce cap on with everyone laughing at you. It's kind of like imagining the worst case scenario, except making it silly or exaggerated. You might still be a little worried about being late, but the levity can allow for a little space so that the anxiety doesn't get too powerful.
4. For parents, kids often look to you for your reaction. For example, when a toddler is learning to walk, they will often look to their parent before going on steps to see whether their parent is approving or not, before they continue on. Kids do the same thing, a little less obviously. If a child has an anxious thought and the parent has anxiety about the thought and/or the child's anxiety, the child will become more anxious. But, if a parent can bring a little levity, kids will see that their parent isn't afraid, and they will learn that they should not be afraid either.
5. Warning: Levity can be helpful for anxious thoughts about what might or could happen in the future. Never use levity for memories, flashbacks, or What if questions about something scary/sad that has already happened possibly happening again. These kinds of thoughts are about past harm, hurt and they should never be invalidated by playing with them in the way I've described in this post. If you are struggling with anxious thoughts related to past trauma, feel free to peruse my blog as I've written fairly extensively on coping with trauma. If, however, you or your child are struggling with anxious thoughts about the future, that are not rooted in past trauma, levity may really help!
Bringing a little levity to anxiety isn't going to solve the world's problems. But it can help you feel a little lighter and a little more in control of your day to day internal experience. Which, by the way, can help you feel more confident, and in the long run...less anxious!
For more support with anxiety, contact me at Creating Space Counseling and Wellness to schedule a free phone consultation or your first appointment.