Sometimes my boys and I are drivers and sometimes we are passengers on what we call, “our bus.” This is basically, our mental state and direction of our thinking. When we are the Drivers, we are in control of our thoughts and decision making, along with our reactions. When we are the passengers, anxiety is driving our bus, and we are not feeling in control of anything or our thinking. This can be terrifying. It can make our heart race, worst-case scenarios come one after another in our head and can cause mild to severe body reactions – from headaches, stomach pains, nausea, shaking or even vomiting.
Yet, we are polite passengers. If you glanced over at us while anxiety was driving, you would never guess what was happening on the inside. You could never tell that we are pretty sure that worse-case scenario is moments away from happening and our insides are flipping and flopping, like a huge fish out of water on the floor at our feet. And that it could take us seconds, minutes or even hours to get back in to the Driver’s seat.
It’s not like we want to experience this or that we are not also completely aware of facts and reality, even during these anxiety-filled bus rides. But being rational and having anxiety are like oil and water most of the time and do not mix well with each other.
I grew up with anxiety but didn’t know it. We didn’t have the tools to label things in my day, which then often times helps you find the tools to fix something or at least deal with it a bit better. No, not my childhood. I was pretty sure I was going to die a lot – probably in a car crash. I created barricades against the front door when I was home alone, well in to my late teens, because, you know, serial killers are always finding their victims in apartment buildings in the suburbs, right? If someone didn’t call me back – dead. If my mom was late getting home – dead. If I broke even the smallest rule – the worst possible punishment would happen. Which, in retrospect, was probably a great protector as an often unaccompanied minor. I never understood why my brain always went there and it interfered with many relationships over the years and probably many opportunities at taking chances as well.
Nowadays, we know better what anxiety is – and how many millions of people deal with it every day. It is common and talked about – memes created about it and a bit more understood and accepted. But the reality is, it doesn’t ever heal or go away. It will always own a portion of your brain, even with all the meditation and tools you may learn.
That said, the more we learn how to not just survive the moments where anxiety is driving “our bus,” but recognize it, voice it and try to normalize it – the better – especially for children. Finding words for kids to label it, describe what they are feeling – from the thoughts that are spinning out of control, to the physical changes they are experiencing – then use tools to start getting themselves back in to the driver’s seat. Also giving them the space and non-judgmental time to do this is important. They are already over-whelmed with emotion when anxietyis driving and to add shame or frustration to their lack of ability at the moment to, “just calm down,” will just internalize it even more and not help them gain more control. This is easier said than done by parents, family, friends, caregivers – especially if they don’t also personally struggle with anxiety and understand first-hand the heavy anchor it can be to a person, especially a child.
For us, we found a great resource through Children’s Hospital in Seattle. The boys, 12 and 9 at the time, were experiencing crippling anxiety, especially the 12-year-old. He was missing a number of days at school because the physical effects were making him nauseous and more. They were over-whelmed with worry and it was making them feel sad and separated from their peers and family. I had no idea what to do to help them and felt I was managing an anxiety triage ward every day, not getting them better, which was doing wonders for my anxiety, let me tell ya!
A very dear friend spotted on Children’s Hospital website, different clinic types that she gently suggested might be a good place to start. After investigating a bit more, we were able to join a 3-month weekly group that was focused on not only normalizing the experiences for all of us, but also start to give us more information (knowledge is power!), but also practice learning tools to manage our anxiety-filled moments. It also gave us each an opportunity to be heard and hear others who were going through the same, sometimes worse, sometimes not as bad, as us. This was huge! Because you truly start to feel like weirdos at times when your brain drives you to the edge of the cliff over and over! So for us, this little group helped all three of us turn a corner. It didn’t “fix” us or make it all go away over night. As I said, I’m pretty sure anxiety will always occasionally take over the Driver’s seat in our minds here and there – but by learning some great tools, normalizing that he likes to drive other people’s buses too and also the reality that we can handle it, talk about it and also be happy, was such a gift.
Don’t be afraid to seek out resources to help yourself or your family! You are not alone and others want to help. See you out on the road!