What, me worry?

Mrs Violet Ross, Head of Woolcock House

When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened (Winston Churchill as cited in Boston, 2011, p. 31).

We usually see worrying as a negative trait, but it has a constructive purpose. Worrying can be instrumental in enabling us to work out solutions, complete tasks in an organised fashion and foresee potential negative outcomes. In fact, recent research conducted at the Netherlands’ Tilburg University has even found a link between worrying and higher verbal intelligence (McKay, 2014). Readers of Mad magazine knew that Alfred E. Neuman was a dullard because he steadfastly refused to worry. Our thoughts can, of course, have powerful effects on our feelings and, subsequently, our behaviours. It’s when our thoughts and worries get out of hand that debilitating problems can emerge, leading to feelings of anxiety, depression and even physical illness. At the end of a busy first term, it is perhaps a good time to reflect on how we manage our worries, and to consider what strategies we might employ in the future to ensure that our worries are kept in check.

In small doses, a bit of worry or stress is beneficial. It helps us to meet life’s daily trials and tribulations, accomplish tasks more efficiently, and it motivates us to focus on our work and reach our goals. It can even boost memory (Hodgekiss, 2013). Too little of this kind of stress can result in complacency, lethargy and a lack of direction. It may well be an uncomfortable feeling, but stress is how the body readies itself to take on a challenge. It is what prepares us to perform at our best —even just acknowledging this can help to keep negative feelings in perspective. Leading a worry-free life is therefore not good for our children. They need experience in worrying about and sorting out their problems, working out the best plan of attack, being willing to try different strategies to see what may or may not work.

The normal worries of everyday life, however, should be relatively easy to control or switch off. Some of us, though, can find ourselves becoming consumed with excessive worry and anxiety, inhibiting our enjoyment of life and reducing our ability to perform at our best. The particularly traumatising aspect of suffering from excessive worry is that the anxious thoughts are ‘all in the mind’, therefore making them inescapable (Doidge, 2010, p. 164). As educators of young women, we must take particular note of recent research conducted by Resilient Youth Australia. This study found that, in general, twenty-five per cent of girls feel anxious and under strain and, for Year 12 girls, these statistics soared to sixty-nine per cent. Clinical psychologist, Andrew Fuller, explains the negative effects anxiety can have on young people:

The biggest barrier for most students to doing well at school is not their attitude, intelligence or motivation; it is their levels of anxiety… [High] levels of anxiety are accompanied by sleep and concentration problems, memory difficulties and distractibility, not to mention the lessening of the joy of learning (Fuller, 2014).

Feeling anxious is a sign that our brains have become overloaded. The levels of cortisol and adrenaline increase and blood travels away from the brain. The body is solely focused on survival, blocking creativity and memory. For parents, it can be confusing, frustrating and painful to watch daughters suffering from excessive worry, leaving them unsure of how best to help. It may be that the traditional parental responses to seeing our children worry need to be rethought.

Psychologist and creator of GoZen (an anxiety relief programme), Renee Jain, suggests the following seemingly counterintuitive strategies for parents with anxious children:

  • Stop reassuring your child. Your child wants to listen to you but can’t. Children experiencing anxiety are unable to think clearly, use logic or even perform basic tasks. Instead Ms Jain suggests a technique she calls the FEEL method:
    1. Freeze — stop and breathe to help reverse the nervous system response
    2. Empathise — anxiety can be frightening and your daughter needs to know you understand
    3. Evaluate — once your daughter is calm, try to work out some possible solutions together
    4. Let Go — of any guilt you might have and remember you are giving your daughter essential life skills to help her manage her worries.
  • Highlight the positive aspects of worrying. It has a purpose, it protects us from harm, it is normal, everyone does it, there is nothing wrong with you.
  • Encourage accurate thinking (as opposed to positive thinking). Feelings are not facts. Is there any evidence to support the negative thoughts or feelings she has?
  • Let your child worry — about anything and everything — but for a limited period of time, ten to fifteen minutes. This prevents your child from bottling feelings up inside but also stops her from poring over perceived concerns for long periods.
  • Help change her thinking from ‘What if?’ to ‘What is?’. Research shows that living in the present can alleviate tendencies to worry about the future — things that may or may not happen. Mindfulness exercises are also very helpful for this.
  • Let your daughter be in situations that might cause her to be anxious or worried and resist your natural desire to protect her from such situations. Avoidance ultimately makes anxiety worse so she needs opportunities to build the necessary skills to deal with difficult situations. Jain recommends a method called ‘laddering’ — chunking, creating mini goals to get closer to the bigger goal through gradual exposure. The first goal might, for example, simply be arriving at an event, then the second would be attending the event for a short period of time, etc.
  • Have strategies in place for when feelings of anxiety rise — a checklist of methods to calm down. This might be stopping and taking some time to do breathing exercises, evaluating the situation, trying some methods for relaxation, and thinking in the present — puzzles, art, yoga, sport and even mathematics! (Jain, 2014).

‘Exercise, sports and rhythmic activities energise and focus the brain’ (Fuller, 2014).

Each day we seem to be bombarded by all sorts of information from a wide variety of technological sources — social media, news broadcasts, endless emails. Our children live much more scheduled lives than generations before them — music lessons, sports training and matches, dancing rehearsals, interschool debates — and there seems to be an ever increasing emphasis on achieving perfection rather than one’s personal best, perhaps augmenting our fear of failure.

Brisbane Girls Grammar School takes the wellbeing and mental health of our students very seriously. Our Student Care team understands the importance of keeping a healthy balance between work, rest and play. Our students study hard, often while also managing a wide range of co-curricular commitments, and can put a lot of pressure on themselves and worry about meeting their own high expectations. It is fortunate that they have access to the expertise of our three psychologists – Mrs Jody Forbes (Student Counselling Co-ordinator), Dr Alix Vann and Mrs Tara MacLachlan. Our psychologists work closely with the girls to build their time management and organisational skills, and to bolster their abilities to cope with a wide range of stressful situations.

Societal expectation, coupled with the pressures we place on ourselves, means that it is little wonder that brains are becoming overloaded in such an environment and that we are perhaps more vulnerable to overwhelming worry. It is therefore increasingly important that we gain strategies to control our thoughts, rather than allowing our thoughts to control us and interfere with our enjoyment of life.

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives (Thoreau, 2006, p. 27).

References

Boston, J. (2011). Reigning in his power, 3rd ed. Bloomington: WestBow Press.

Doidge, N. (2010). The brain that changes itself, Rev. ed. Melbourne: Scribe Publications.

Fuller, A. (2014). Ten ways schools can reduce anxiety. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://andrewfuller.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/anxiety.pdf

Hodgekiss, A. (2013, April 17). Being stressed can be good for you — it boosts memory. Daily Mail Australia. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2310343/Being-stressed-CAN-good–boosts-memory.html

Jain, R. (2014, August 6). 9 things every parent with an anxious child should try. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/renee-jain/9-things-every-parent-with-an-anxious-child-should-try_b_5651006.html

McKay, T. (2014, December 17). Science has good news for people who think they worry too much. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://mic.com/articles/106752/science-has-good-news-for-people-who-think-they-worry-too-much

Thoreau , H.D. (2006). Thoreau and the art of life: Precepts and principles. Vermont: Heron Dance Press.

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