Anxiety is about getting junk mail

14 Jul Your Anxious Child: Emails to Parents by Edward H. Plimpton, PhD

Junk Mail

Let’s say your child has lots of anxious questions of the type that don’t have a close connection to anything that has really happened in her life, as in “Am I going to throw up today?” but the last time she threw up was two years ago. You have tried reassuring her but she usually comes back to double- and sometimes triple-check your answer. “Are you really sure?”

What is going on here? If the brain has some similarities to a computer, then we could say that the anxious brain is not good at sorting out “junk mail” from regular mail. Junk mail in this case are those worries about the future that are theoretically possible, but rather unlikely to occur. As we know, junk mail can come in all shapes and sizes and can look very convincing because there is always a possibility that this proposed worst-case scenario could take place. This type of anxious thinking is junk mail.

Asleep or awake, we are always having thoughts and images passing through our minds.  It is actually nonstop traffic, although the intensity and clarity of it does vary. For someone with a more anxious nature, this natural buzz of activity can be a significant source of distress. It turns out that there is not much difference between the anxious brain and the non-anxious brain in terms of the thoughts that occur, but there is a difference in terms of how these thoughts are dealt with, and their frequency and intensity. The anxious brain tends to treat all thoughts as potentially significant, and then follows this with a question along the lines of, “What does this say about me that I am having a thought like this?” Perhaps this thought is an indication of who I am truly am. In contrast, the nonanxious brain does not have to grab hold of every passing thought and can let the junk mail float by.

A large part of dealing with anxiety is changing your child’s relationship to it. In another e-mail, I discuss giving anxiety a name, whether it is the Worry Monster or something of the child’s invention. Then a next step is labeling what the “Worry Monster” says as junk mail. Sometimes it looks important, but the Monster is really trying to trick your child into buying something you don’t need. You might want to have your child watch you sort through the mail at home and see that there is some mail that goes straight into the trash can or shredder without even being opened. We might almost say that anxiety is trying to sell you an expensive insurance policy for something that is quite unlikely to occur. But in labeling the anxious thought as “junk mail,” we can begin to respond to it differently and consequently lessen the effects of these intrusive thoughts and images.

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