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Facing the Anxiety Monster: Scary But Not Dangerous

answered 01:16 PM EST, Thu April 26, 2012
anonymous anonymous
I have always been a perfectionist and a bit obsessive about things. This has served me well in my career as a lawyer but I am concerned that some of my obsessiveness may be passing into an unhealthy range.

I have 2 children, aged 8 and 10. I have always been very careful with their safety and I prefer it most when they spend their time with me or when I can supervise. For this reason I am uncomfortable with sleepovers and even play visits to other houses. I also prefer to drive my children to school and have my husband pick up after school as opposed to their using the public school bus. My husband doesn’t know this but sometimes I will have a bad feeling about the kids while they are at school and I will drive over on some pretense to check in on them to make sure they are alright. I realize this is excessive but it makes me feel better and otherwise I worry too much.

My older son was invited to a sleepover birthday party last weekend. In some cases I may have allowed this, but because I do not know the parents well I decided I could not let him go (or I would have been sleepless all night). He was very upset about this so I told him I would let him go as long as I could make arrangements to also stay over at the party to help them with supervision. My son choose to skip the party but is still upset to have missed it.

My husband says that I should have allowed him to go and that he is old enough to be going to supervised sleepovers at friends’ houses. We actually had a serious argument about this and he says I am stifling the children with my own worries and that by now I am not protecting them from harm but actually doing them harm by never allowing them to live a normal childhood life experience.

I am worried that what he said may have some truth to it but I do not know how to change myself to give them a little more freedom. Even if I wanted to give them more freedom (which I am not sure about) I am not sure that I can make myself let go.
Does it sound like I am abnormal in my concerns for their safety? If it is true that I need to give them more freedom, how can I do this without feeling so anxious that I need to drive over to wherever they are to check on them?

Dr. Richard Schultz Says...

Hello and thank you for writing. 

I certainly appreciate how distressing it must be to struggle with scary and worrisome thoughts and feelings about the safety of your children, and, on the other hand, what a relief it can temporarily be to perform behaviors (preventing your son from attending the sleepover, checking on your kids while they are at school, and driving them to school versus letting them take the bus) that reduce these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. 

I think you are wise to be be taking a look at this pattern of thinking, feeling and behavior, and believe that by doing so, and perhaps by seeking the help of a qualified professional, that your quality of life can increase significantly, as well as your general feeling of relaxation and well-being. 

Diagnostically speaking, and with limited information, you are describing features suggestive of a condition called generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), with accompanying features of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).  These are marked by the presence of troubling, intrusive worries and fears that are difficult or impossible to control,  a disruption of your quality of life caused by these worries and concerns, and recurrent behaviors that are performed specifically in order to reduce your own level of anxiety (these are frequently called "safety behaviors").  You have also mentioned sleep disruption, which is common in GAD.  By the way, anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed of all psychological conditions, and will be experienced by more than 30% of the population at some time in their lives. 

As I am sure you know, the safety behaviors are a blessing and a curse.  They persist because, in the short term, they do bring a sense of relief.  This is based on a behavioral concept called negative reinforcement which suggests that "any behavior which leads to the cessation or avoidance of an aversive state will be repeated."  The problem, however, is that the relief lasts only a short period of time, and the fear returns the next day or hour or minute.  In addition, we get better at whatever we practice and we are always practicing something..  So, it sounds as if you are practicing, and unfortunately getting better, at worry, at viewing the world as a dangerous and threatening place, and of doing whatever you can to avoid the feeling of discomfort.  You are also practicing managing people and situations so as to reduce your own discomfort.  My guess is that you don't like seeing yourself do this, and feel somewhat ashamed and self-critical about it. 

And the truth is that it is quite possible to transmit aspects of these conditions to your children through these behaviors.

In addition, by performing the safety or avoidance behaviors, you are losing out on the opportunity to actually learn how much truth there is behind your fearful thoughts, and how to cope more constructively with anxiety and the states of ambiguity or uncertainty.  Every step we take toward that which we fear strengthens us and every step we take back from it weakens us.

The etiology of these conditions is not fully known.  Indeed, a history of trauma, being raised in a chaotic home, or being raised by caregivers with their own struggles with anxiety, depression, addiction or other problems could certainly give rise to a desire within you for control and avoidance of ambiguity (you mentioned your longstanding perfectionism, which is certainly related to what you have described).

The most effective treatment for difficulties such as you have described is cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy.  This is a semi-structured method which will help you to evaluate the accuracy of your fearful thoughts, and also help you to begin freeing yourself from the safety behaviors (through "exposure").  This can be somewhat uncomfortable, but is not dangerous and is quite effective.  You can learn more about cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) at my website (www.drschultz.org) or blog (www.mindsetdoc.com). 

I hope this information helps, and I will be happy to answer any additional questions you might have.  Again, the difficulties you have described are common and can be effectively treated in a reasonably short period of time.


Richard E. Schultz, Ph.D.



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Page last updated Apr 26, 2012

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