Expert Offers Strategies for Dealing with Stress, Worry, and Anxiety 

January 17, 2024
Lynn Lyons. Courtesy Image.

Lynn Lyons promotes her “special interest” as “breaking the generational cycle of worry in families.

“Anxious kids come from anxious parents. They have your genes and they live in your house,” she told her audience in Bedford High School’s Buckley Auditorium last Wednesday evening. “An enormous amount has to do with modeling. The most important thing you can model for your kids is joy – it’s incredibly powerful and incredibly important, especially now.”

Lyons is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist from Concord, NH, specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders in children and adults. 

Her remarks were titled, “Modeling Matters: What Parents Need to Know (and Do) to Decrease Stress, Worry, and Anxiety.” 

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The presentation was sponsored by the Bedford Special Education Parent Advisory Council. Lyons stayed at floor level, speaking for about 100 minutes without referring to notes, then answered questions.

“Parents,” she said, have a lot of concerns about their kids’ emotional health. It feels like it’s everywhere; it feels overwhelming.” 

Her emphasis is on prevention. “We can think preventatively – the earlier the better, but it’s never too late.

“My goal is not to get rid of anxiety,” Lyons declared. “The goal is to know what worry is, when it shows up, and change your relationship with it.”

Anxiety, Lyons explained, “is a normal part of being human. We can’t get through life without some periods of being worried about something. So, we have to make sure that we are not doing things that work in the short term but actually perpetuate the problem.” 

There’s a “superpower of understanding how this thing works,” Lyons told the audience. Quoting David Barlow, the Boston University psychology and psychiatry professor emeritus, she said, “Anxiety is the overestimation of the problem and an underestimation of your resources to deal with it.” Worry, she added, is “thinking about things that haven’t happened or already happened.

“Anxiety is the physical symptoms that show up when we fire up our fight-or-flight. and we are not in a life-and-death situation,” she said, and kids who suffer from anxiety demand two things. The first is certainty: “I have to know what’s going to happen next, and I have to control it.” The other is comfort: “I want to feel safe and comfortable, or I want out.

“We have pathologized a lot of what is normal,” Lyons said. “We have gotten scared of our kids having big feelings. We have gotten too afraid of letting our kids work through things,” and to “allow our kids to roll around in the language of being uncertain and being uncomfortable.” 

Lyons said autonomy is “the ability to step out into the world and do things independently. If you have a teenager, they should be doing things that you don’t know about. And the world is not more dangerous. It has never been a safer time to be a kid in the USA.” She dismissed “this idea that we have to know where our kids are all the time.” A tracking app “is not working out for our kids. It gets in the way of teaching your kids responsible communication.

“We need kids to experience uncertainty, to let them play around with it, to let them screw up, to have their hearts broken.”

Worry, she said, is like the leader of a cult, demanding certainty and comfort. 

“If you’ve got someone in the family who is really anxious and their cult leader is calling the shots, the rest of the family goes along with it – because it’s messy if you don’t.

“If we don’t have the ability to manage when things don’t go as planned, then we are doing the anxiety disorder a favor,” she continued. “It’s well-meaning and it seems like a good idea at the time, but what happens when there’s an adjustment that needs to be made, and we’ve trained a generation of kids that life is exactly the way it needs to go?”

Part of Lyons’s presentation focused on physiology. An event that triggers worry sends a message to the brain’s amygdala, “the receiver of data that determines whether you are in danger. But it does not know the difference between real danger and imagined danger. All it says is: you are in trouble.”

So, the brain sends adrenaline through the body, activating and deactivating until “all of the physical symptoms make perfect sense – if you are in a life-or-death situation. Your body is figuring out what it needs and what it doesn’t need. It pulls the blood and oxygen and sends them to the bigger muscles, and you fizz out your higher level of thinking. The big thing that shuts down is your digestive system – we are sending the energy elsewhere.

“And where will a lot of people end up? The nurses’ office, the emergency room, under your bed.”  

But when one is aware of anxiety’s physiological impact, “it makes sense,” Lyons said. “So that’s why my heart is pounding. so that’s why my stomach is upset.

“We have been trying to get rid of anxious events, but we can’t pull that off,” she continued. “We are just going to get rid of your worried thoughts. Feeling anxiety is not the problem; freaking out because you feel anxiety is what makes this thing so powerful.”

Adults, she said, “reinforce the problem by providing reassurance or telling her what she wants to hear. We say to kids, ‘You shouldn’t feel nervous,’ or we say, ‘You have to eat before your test.’ All this reassurance and we think that’s going to work. And it might, for a little bit. We end up just throwing in the towel.”

The focus should be learning about anxiety, “knowing what this thing is. It’s okay if you don’t want to do something or if you don’t feel good. But when we step in and say, ‘We’ve got to get rid of it. I can’t have these symptoms,’ and the strategies are all based on certainty and comfort, kids have the expectation that worry and anxiety will go away. And it doesn’t work.”

Several times Lyons suggested a strategy of “pulling the worry out and giving it a name. You knew it was going to show up. How do you want to respond? I understand why my body feels this way, and I am going to pivot and do what I need to do. 

“If you consider yourself a worried parent, pull your worry out and give it a name. Model for kids how to get some distance – you are owning it. The hardest parents I work with are the ones who won’t own their own stuff.”

Lyons advised “talking to kids about the skill of emotional management, the ability to do something when you don’t feel like it. Talk to kids about the ability to manage when things don’t go as they expect, [and to understand] that feelings come and go. We want kids to hear the message over and over again that their brains are incredibly malleable,” which is “the opposite of what anxiety wants you to believe.

“When we talk to kids about being works in progress, about how the things that they do impact their mood, we are giving them language that is opposite of what anxiety and depression demand,” she said. But if “we talk to kids about ‘this is who they are,’ about ‘chemical imbalance,’ we are doing exactly what the disorder wants: to have kids become more and more passive in their own mental health.

“Kids with a larger, more nuanced emotional vocabulary do better with their mental health outcomes,” said Lyons. “Teach kids how to use their vocabulary, the ability to feel things and respond in a way that’s appropriate for the setting and the context that you’re in.”

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