Anxiety 2.0

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The Alluvial Fan at Rocky Mountain National Park

Years ago, when I was in my first bout of full-blown anxiety, Christian passed on to me a book he’d been given called Telling Yourself the Truth. The point of it was that the words we use in describing to ourselves our reality have the power to shape our emotional state for good for for worse.

I realized anew how important this is this past week in Colorado. Just for a single illustration, let’s take Nicholas’ and Christian’s reaction to a sign posted at the Alluvial Fan in Rocky Mountain National Park. It said something like Warning: Swift Water, dangerous. And Christian was telling Nicholas to stay out of the water because it could sweep him away and he could be killed.

Well, the thing is, NIcholas wanted to put his feet in the water. He said, “I can be killed even if I put a pinky in?”

And this is the thing: putting a pinky…or a hand…

…in the lower parts of the Alluvial Fan stream isn’t going to get you killed. In fact, Alex and I tried hard to cross that stream on exposed rocks and were thwarted at several spots, and the last time in turning back, I lost my balance and landed both hiking boots in the stream up to my ankles. Clearly, I’m still here to tell the harrowing (cough-cough) tale. In fact, I didn’t even notice the current.

And see, this is the thing: anxiety takes healthy caution and turns it into certainty of death. The sign doesn’t say “if you touch this water you will DIE!” It says, in essence, “Be careful and respect the power of nature.”

A few weeks ago, we all went for a short hike and cookout at a state park. Alex was the only one who didn’t put on bug spray. He went digging in the foliage for ripe wild blackberries, and he came home with two dozen ticks. (Seriously. Two dozen.) We were still finding them three days later, crawling around his room, presumably from the clothes he didn’t wash as ordered when we got home. It was incredibly traumatic for him, all the more so because for the first two days he tried to deal with it himself, without telling us.

He spent the entire week in Estes Park complaining and resisting going hiking, because that experience left such a scar. I totally get it, but he loves rock climbing, and he loves stargazing, and he’s always been a nature lover until this. So we’ve been having to really talk about the truth of the matter—the actual scope of the risk, and the need to get back in the saddle, so to speak. Yet I know his anxiety around the idea of ticks is branded onto his psyche forever. If I needed proof, it came when, ten hours into the twelve-hour trip home, he found a single tick crawling on his hair and fell apart. It breaks my heart that he will be fighting anxiety around the idea of the outdoors for years to come.

And of course, the obsession with safety in kids is another example of how we, culturally, have inflated reasonable prudence to six-alarm paranoia.

I am really conscious of this tendency to allow anxiety to inflate real causes for caution into guarantees of annihilation, because it is something both Christian and I struggle with. (His anxieties are about temporal things, mine tend to be emotional. Both of them can be crippling.) If we can do one thing for our children, it will be to teach them to be clear-eyed about danger, to recognize which ones are causes for concern and which ones actually call for an all-hands-on-deck anxiety response.

Note: If you want photos of our Colorado trip, they’re here. I was going to do a photo post but I already did the photo essay on Facebook.

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