field guide to anxiety

I did not recognize that my daughter had an anxiety problem.

I thought she had really bad luck, because so many things kept going wrong. I thought she really did "need" to do that sport, go to that event, get along with that friend, get that grade.

I was wrong. She was suffering from a painful anxiety. Her body and brain were stuck on high alert, and the emergency kept changing targets to try to make sense of it. It wasn't her life, it was her brain/body's reaction to it.

Now that she is not so anxious - and she copes well with her anxieties when she feels them, I recognize the difference. I see the irritability, inflexibility, and reactivity as anxiety. And I see it in myself for what it is, as well. This has changed my life.

Now I try to focus on her, not the target of the anxiety. And do the same for myself.

Dr. Walter Kaye, of UCSD's Eating Disorder program, thinks the neurobiology of eating disorders "may be a strategy that some people use to reduce anxiety. That is, extreme eating may blunt anxious feelings."

With that in mind, I read the following headline and wondered if they have it backwards: "Puberty Explains Adolescent Anxiety and Mood Swings."

I am optimistic for the future when I see a fairly simple breathing test may give clues to who is vulnerable for anxiety disorders. See if this sounds familiar: "adolescents who tend to respond anxiously to bodily sensations may perceive the bodily events that occur during puberty as personally threatening" and thus learn to fear bodily sensations, thereby setting the stage for panic development. This learning process might be even more likely to occur when
bodily experiences related to puberty happen unexpectedly."

What can we as parents do? Recognize anxiety for what it is. Model coping. Find and use strategies to head off, deal with, and recover from anxiety.

For the most practical tools to do that, especially in the context of a child's eating disorder, may I suggest Nancy Zucker's amazing book: "Off the CUFF."


  1. Dr Kaye's stuff makes a lot more sense to me than nearly everything else I've read.

  2. I think a lot of us confuse what we are anxious over with just overall anxiety. It is hard to accept the fact that it may not be the situation but your overall mental framework that is causing you so much pain. From my experience I thought that if I gave up the conviction that it was situations in my life that stressed me out my worries would lose meaning. But, whats wrong with that again? Wasn't it those worries that I wanted to get rid of anyway. Strange how the mind works.


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