Anxiety runs in my family like a river and its tributaries, but until I met my own daughter, I had not fully believed that anxiety could be caused entirely by wiring rather than experience. Her father and I were intimately familiar with the heart-racing, dizzying awfulness of panic, yet we wondered: How could a much-loved baby suffer anxiety? She had been safe in my arms since birth, yet when faced with too much stimulation, she would shut down, pressing into my neck for comfort and solace.
Anxiety convinces our brains to build and decorate a shrine to fear. The actions we take to avoid irrational fears turn our shrines into cages. But the brain’s magic is that it can reshape itself. Even an anxious brain.
Since brain chemistry rather than trauma was at fault, I didn’t think “talk therapy” would work. Until we found Dr. E. In our first visit to her office, she shared an astonishingly straightforward secret: When panic strikes, we can calm our bodies and change our thoughts. Instead of feeding the panic by focusing on it or fleeing it by checking out, my daughter had to learn to tell herself rational truths and to actively relax. The three of us would meet once a week, and we had to practice every day.
It sounded simple, but the practice was daunting. The medication was starting to work for my daughter, and the last thing she wanted to do was revisit the worst feeling ever. But I insisted. Instead of avoiding things that triggered her panic, we taped the sounds that most bothered her, and I made her listen. Again and again we practiced Dr. E’s strategy. Notice. Evaluate. Self-talk. Relax. Repeat. Grow.
At first, I did the work for her. I forced her toward what scared her, and I spoke on her behalf. Instead of sheltering her, I insisted that she stretch a little at a time. I spoke her “self-talk.” I am safe. I am strong. I can do this. We closed our eyes and exhaled. We redirected our anxious energy toward risk taking. We walked forward together, rather than shrinking back. Sometimes it seemed pointlessly hard, but gradually I saw that she was trying the techniques on her own.
As parents, our first impulse is to defend our babies from danger. But when you are born with a brain that is default-wired for anxiety, the harm originates within. Panic shapes our brains with every faulty firing of our fight-or-flight system, and worsens with every avoidance. Anxiety convinces our brains to build and decorate a shrine to fear. The actions we take to avoid irrational fears turn our shrines into cages. But the brain’s magic is that it can reshape itself. Even an anxious brain. The right medication in the right doses had to come first, but then cognitive behavioral therapy gave us a key to unlock the cage.
While the medicine was rebalancing her neurotransmitters, helping her brain not to overreact, my daughter was doing the heavy lifting of brain development. Through this steady, no-nonsense approach, she was literally changing her brain: building fortitude rather than seeking shelter.
But it wasn’t just my child whose brain was growing. All this fear-facing and self-talking and quiet, steady breathing was making my brain grow, too. Airplanes were my trigger. But the next time I walked onto a Jetway and started to panic, I heard the words that I had spoken for her, steady and certain from all our practice: “I am safe. I am strong. I can do this.” I closed my eyes and willed my body to go limp, feeling the electric crackle of panic quiet in my mind. The plane raced down the runway, gaining speed, gaining certainty, gaining distance from everything we were leaving behind. As it lifted off and soared up, I felt an unfamiliar emotion: beyond relief, I felt joy.