Several couples have asked me about the anxiety that they see in their children. Anxiety can generate fears of going to school, fears of taking a bath, fears of just about anything you can imagine. These fears always come with a certain amount of child like “magical thinking”. Now, before we all jump to the conclusion that this fear filled “magical thinking” is a childhood anxiety symptom I assure you it’s not! I see full grown, very brave, adults claim they are so anxious that breathing, thinking clearly, and surviving the rapid heart pounding panicky feeling is certainly going to be the end of them. You see weather you are 6 years old, or 60 years young, anxiety can FEEL like certain catastrophic end of life as you know it. Those afflicted state that they are certain that the weight in their chests must be a heart attack or the child refusing to go to school is CERTAIN that his mom is going to get in a tragic accident or the school is going to be attacked by terrorists. Anxiety causes emotional flooding to the point of the afflicted losing ability to process information in a rational way. The anxious child, or adult, truly believes the magical thought of tragic happenings. In fact the anxious person can be so convincing that parents and loved ones might begin to feel like they need to give in to the “magical thinking”.
Dr. David Burns is the leading expert in anxiety disorders. In one of his research seminars a client came to Dr. Burns and his group of Stanford research students. This particular woman experiences extreme panic that she believes will eventually stop her heart and cause her death. She is so certain that she will not survive her panic attacks that she has everyone at her home and her place of employment working around her panic attacks by giving her special privileges. She is allowed to find a cool dark place to relax until her panic loses its death grip. Dr. Burns is empathetic of the fear, but states that everyone giving in to her magical thinking that she will lose life in a panic is what is solidifying her inability to learn how to manage her anxiety symptoms. Dr. Burns teaches us that when parents decide not to walk their child to class to face intense fears of terror attack or tragic accident are doing the opposite of what their child really needs if we want to help the child manage anxiety.
In the case of the woman that fears her heart will stop had an intense panic episode while at Dr. Burns research clinic. Dr. Burns asked her to jump on a treadmill and run at a brisk pace to get her heart rate really pumping. The women hesitated to comply because she felt she really needed to just find a dark room and close her eyes. Dr. Burns gently validated that he new she was scared, but that she would certainly be fine. He assured her that anxiety would not shut her heart down. She believe enough to jump on the treadmill and run. The entire process proved to this person that her panic would not cause her heart to stop. While this may seem reckless, Dr. Burns teaches that the anxious person is “kind of” hypnotized by the anxiety and if we allow them to hypnotize us into joining the magical thinking our validation of tragic ends will only make their symptoms worse.
This activity is called Exposure Therapy. Exposure therapy is allowing the anxious person to face their greatest fear and learn that the fear is more magical thinking than reality. Exposure therapy is actually the only non-medication cure for all forms of anxiety. A child that is introduced to the classroom several times even when terrified of tragedy will slowly realize they are safe and sound with no terrorist attacks. While this may seem cruel, wouldn’t it be more cruel to join the child in fearing a terror attack in Southern Utah that has never actually had a terror attack?
Matt Eschler PhD, LMFT