Conversations on Healing

From Crisis to Connection: Supporting Each Other through Anxiety

Featuring
Dr. Tamar Chansky
Licensed psychologist and founder of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety

Dr. Tamar Chansky is a licensed psychologist and founder of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety which uses cognitive-behavioral therapy to treat a variety of conditions. She is considered an expert on dealing with anxiety for children and teens. Dr. Chansky is the author of several books including “Freeing Your Child from Anxiety” and a book for adults, “Freeing Yourself from Anxiety”. Her work is devoted to helping kids, teens and adults reduce stress and minimize their anxiety.

In today’s episode, host Shay Beider talks with Dr. Chansky about the role that anxiety plays in our lives and some of the tools people can use to minimize stressors. Together, Shay and Tamar discuss the Parent’s Master Plan for Anxiety where Dr. Chansky shares 7 steps that parents can take to help their children manage anxiety. Additionally, the pair discuss the 4 step strategy that can be used to move from catastrophe to clarity. Dr. Chansky also shares the importance of emotional self regulation and how the process of resetting the nervous system is a highly individualized process. This episode provides plenty of helpful tips to manage stress and anxiety and promote wellness!

Show Notes:

Introduction (00:02) Welcome to the Conversations on Healing podcast, where host Jay Biter speaks with renowned healthcare leaders, practitioners, and thought leaders to explore the world of wellness, the incredible powers of self-care, and what it truly means to heal today. Join us on this journey to become more whole healed and connected.

Shay Beider (00:33) Hello everyone. Welcome back to the Conversations on Healing podcast. I’m your host, Shea Biter and I’m really delighted to share a new episode with you. Today we’re joined by author, psychologist, and founder of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and anxiety, Dr. Tamar Chansky. Dr. Chansky has written numerous popular books on overcoming anxiety and negative thinking, including freeing your child from anxiety, freeing your child from obsessive compulsive disorder, and a book for adults freeing yourself from anxiety. Her work is devoted to helping children, teens, adults, couples, and families find simple powerful ways to understand the inner workings of the mind. Dr. Chansky helps kids and adults to reduce stress, improve emotional health, and be free to live the life they want. In our conversation today, we review some exercises and strategies for minimizing anxiety, including a four step method for moving from catastrophe to clarity. We also review seven steps that parents can take to help their kids manage anxiety, which are outlined in the parent’s master plan for anxiety that Tamar has developed and offers. In one of her books, she shares some great tips and ideas for regulating the nervous system and creating calm during times of distress. This episode has a lot of practical information that can help you, your child or your teen to better manage anxious feelings. So let’s get the conversation rolling. Well, I want to welcome you Tamar to the Conversations on Healing podcast. I’m so delighted to have you as a guest on the show. Welcome.

Tamar Chansky (02:37) Thank you so much, Shay. It’s great to be here.

Shay (02:40) We are going to have a fun conversation. I immersed myself in some of your books. In particular I went through in quite a bit of detail freeing yourself from anxiety and also freeing your child from anxiety. And first off, I want to say what I love about your books is they’re so practical, they’re very well written and very accessible and like user-friendly. So I thought you’ve done an amazing job just in your communication style, so kudos to you.

Tamar (03:14) Thank you. All of it’s always helpful to know that the hard work is doing what I’m trying to do, which is people and be practical because that’s what we need.

Shay (03:30) It so is, and I feel like with anxiety and particular kind of an action oriented plan is very useful and you have a lot of strategies and exercises and steps. So I want to spend some of our time today talking through how we can effectively work with anxiety for both adults and children. And I thought because we’re going to focus quite a bit on that topic, that it might be useful to start by talking about what anxiety is. And I found an interesting description in your book, freeing Yourself from Anxiety, where you wrote that the first reaction that anxiety essentially is the first reaction of a sensitive system that is wired to keep us alert to danger and protected from harm. So given that, I was wondering if you could tell our listeners a little bit more about the important role that anxiety plays in our lives.

Tamar (04:32) Absolutely. The way that anxiety works as you were just describing is, it’s we are built to last. The nervous system is never wrong. It just might not exactly match what’s actually happening. And what happens is that our bodies, our nervous system is always on the lookout for what is going to be harmful to us. Sometimes the information that we get is not essential, and so we may get feelings of something’s wrong or what do I need to do, or a lot of what ifs when the situation really is pretty controllable or even predictable, the things that we’re worried about that might happen are not going to happen. And so whether it’s focusing on what our thoughts are, racing ahead, making predictions, negative predictions about what’s going to happen or the physical experience of anxiety, feeling your heart beating really fast hands, sweaty palms, things like that, that all of that is a nervous system trying to protect us from harm. But we have to understand that it’s not always doing its job. We have to be partners with our nervous system in a sense. Sounds funny, but the way I think of this work is really changing your relationship with anxiety, which will have the first word and then we can step in and decide is that helpful? Is that necessary? We get that feeling I have to do something. Do I really have to do something or what do I need to do? So it’s about that relationship and understanding that everybody feels anxiety. Everybody that’s just going to be, I work with kids and adults and the sort of trick question that I ask kids, I name it as a trick question when I first meet a child, I say, how many people in the world do you think have anxiety? And they’re trying to think of an answer. And I say, okay, everybody has some they worry about that they respond to in a way that they don’t want to or don’t need to. The things that I might worry about, other people might not. I joke with kids, I have cooking anxiety, I’m getting better about it. There are other more serious things that I may have anxiety about, but anxiety can land anywhere, anywhere. And so because of that empathy and compassion is so important in this whole process, whether it’s you’re talking to your child or your partner, coworker, friend, that someone else’s anxiety may be very different from yours in content, but the process is the same, that you know we’re just kind of knocked off our feet with those feelings and thoughts and we need to know what to do next.

Shay (08:03)And I know from a prior conversation that you and I had that through the pandemic there have been a lot of changes in mental health globally right? And that there’s been a rise in anxiety, there’s been a rise in depression, we’ve seen a lot of shifts in mental health. And so I’m interested how you also see things to prior times to the pandemic and what you think we need to be more aware of having lived through this global experience together that maybe is different or has been sort of shape shifted as a result of going through something so on such a large scale collectively.

Tamar (08:44) Yeah, that’s such a great question and there’s so many parts to it. I think on the one hand that just the fact that you’re raising that Shay is not exactly how a lot of people are feeling that they need to feel about this. A lot of coming out of the early years of the pandemic, the instruction, whether spoken or unspoken, is get back to normal. Whereas the cost and just the experience of those months, years of isolation, dealing with uncertainty loss, trauma that people experience, just the whole range of experiences that people had, kids in school, out of school, all the changes, the parent, you could go on and on and your heart kind of breaks thinking about just what folks went through that there was no global reset that we did. We never really acknowledged that all of that happened and Covid is not over either, but we didn’t really acknowledge the cost of that. And so I think that the primary intervention really for mental health is just acknowledging that people are coming into this time are still in this time with a higher stress level, with more that they haven’t processed or had time or bandwidth to process. And if we can see that, that is where we all are, that’s an intervention that already helps, helps us feel safe. Here we are talking about anxiety, which is about threat. Feeling safe is the counterpoint, and if we feel that people understand generally our mental state, our stress level, we’re going to feel safer. And that is one thing I love about talking about things like this is that what we’re talking about is free. This isn’t an intervention that you need to go to somebody for. This is what we can do for each other. Just being prepared for acknowledging and having compassion for what everybody has gone through. So I know that’s a very long-winded. I am she, sorry, this is me. This is really me. It is a long-winded answer, but I feel like that is sort of the profound learning that we could take from this time is really how to support each other, understanding that our mental state is not an extra thing, it’s not a peripheral aspect of it, it is fundamental to how we function When we feel safe, we can be more connected with each other, we can look at each other, we can be hopeful to each other. We can access our intelligence in a way that we can’t if we’re feeling in a threat state. So I think if this were something that was understood, it’s going to just be so good for everybody as the baseline starting point of how we approach each other.

Shay (12:44) Yeah, that’s great. I appreciate your taking the time to explain that with a certain level of depth and understanding. I would love to go into some of the tools that you describe in your books because I think they’re really practical and valuable. So you have this four step method that’s called From Catastrophe to Clarity, and I want to share that a little bit with our listeners and I thought maybe I could walk through the steps just to give an overview and then maybe we could go through one by one a little bit more about what each of those is so that they can understand just from a sort of tangible sense how they could practice this. So these four steps, so the first step is to pause and relabel your thoughts. So I thought maybe we just start with step one and if you could explain a little what is it to pause and relabel your thoughts, what does that mean?

Tamar (13:47) Yes, absolutely. So the kind of fun campy way I think of these things, and I think there’s an illustration in one of the books of two telephones. Who’s calling? Is it using your caller id? Is it a friend or is it your alarm system in a sense? So neuropsychologists have talked about we can feel calmer by naming what is happening to us, sort of name it to tame it. So if you can say That’s my anxiety, I know that that’s an anxious thought. It might not seem like that makes a difference because inside on some level that is an anxious thought, but it’s different when you name it because you’re going from that primitive place of threat to your higher level functioning where you can say that’s that and that’s that already is an intervention that helps. So using your caller id, I mean what does anxiety sound like? It has a certain voice in a sense. It starts with what if or Oh no, I think of it with kids. I talk about it as sort of the yikes button. The yikes button got pushed, it’s everything that’s going to go wrong and it also kind of speaks, if you will, with authority and urgency. So folks who are listening might just start to notice. Let’s say you’re driving somewhere and you’re going to be late or something and you hear, you get that feeling of like, oh no, this is going to be so terrible. Just try a little thing to say, okay, that’s my anxiety. I have other options. That’s the other thing about labeling. If you can label your anxious voice, you can also then draw on your voice of reason or someone there’s a strategy later we’ll talk about consulting your inner panel of your board of directors in a sense, and what would they say? What would would a friend say? So it just begins that process of saying who’s who in your mind.

Shay (16:14) Great, I love that. And I’ll introduce the second step, which is to get very specific and to narrow down the problem to the one thing that really matters. So can you tell everybody a little bit more about that second step of narrowing it down?

Tamar (16:31) Yeah, and that one, think of a funnel that at the beginning our anxious thoughts are very global. Everything’s wrong or nothing’s going to work. It’s going to be terrible like that. And then you want to kind of narrow it down to by asking yourself what’s the thing I’m most worried about? Let’s say you have a meeting with your boss or something and you think, I am so, I’m so anxious, I can’t even think I’m so anxious about this. Obviously doing some breathing strategies and other things that we’ll talk about in a few minutes will be helpful. But after that, if you say, okay, what is the thing that I’m most afraid of? Just name what that is, narrow it down. You might find that there’s something that you need to ask for help around. You might say, I’m worried that my boss is going to ask about such and such and I don’t know that thing. Great, since you got specific, you can go find out about that before you go into that meeting and you’ll go in feeling prepared. Sometimes there’s a practical solution to getting specific and other times it may just be that you kind of name it and see, that’s probably not going to happen. I don’t think that specific thing, I’m going to totally blank out. I won’t know what to say at all. It’ll be a disaster like okay, that would be awful, but do I really think that’s the worst case scenario? What’s the sort of most likely scenario, which I also call the boring story with the kids. It’s sort of like nothing really happened. A lot of what we encounter in life, there’s certainly exceptions to this, but a lot of what we encounter day to day is the boring story, which is good things happen pretty much the way that we think.

Shay (18:38) That’s great. So the third step is to broaden the solutions or optimize by rethinking what is possible and broadening your choices. Do you want to tell us more about that?

Tamar (18:52) Sure. So one of the things that happens with anxiety, and again if we think about where it’s coming from our basic survival system is that our perspective is narrowed not by our choice, but that just happens through the fight or flight system. So we don’t see it’s back in the day, if there were an animal in front of us, we wouldn’t think, I wonder what’s over there in the trees or I wonder what’s, no, we would just have that narrow focus. So being able to shift perspective is part of how you are indicating to your body that you’re safe enough to do that. And so that’s helpful and there are different ways of doing that. So I mentioned a minute ago about your internal board of directors, and I use this all the time. I really do. Thinking about for people who you admire, they could be real people, they could be fictional people, people you’ll never meet. His holiness of Dalai Lama is always the top there of just calming me down. I will think of his holiness of Dalai Lama, he does not know, and Oprah, whomever, your wise grandmother who’s passed away, just tapping into the wisdom of someone else to weigh in on what the situation is that you’re in. Again, you’ll get some great information probably by doing that, but just the act of shifting your focus out of that eagle eye narrow focus, you will start to feel your nervous system will down regulate because you’re showing it that it’s safe to look around. So it’s sort of both. It’s both a physical strategy in a way and also informationally just great. We can get so good. I have friends I’ve put on my panel. So again, listeners now you might just think about and jot down on a sticky note, a few people that you want to consult in your mind, they never need to know. So helpful. It’s like what we would tell a friend or what a friend would tell us. That’s another way of thinking about it. And I just want to give one more example of how you can optimize and get a broader perspective is especially with anxiety, you can make a three column list. One is the worst case scenario. The next is the ridiculously best case scenario that you just get some kind of levity and absurdity going of. Everyone is just going to love everything I do and it’ll be the most amazing thing. And then you kind of settle at what you think is the most likely scenario. Again, having that flexibility just going through that exercise is going to lower your anxiety and you might get some helpful information along the way.

Shay (22:19) That’s good. That’s really good. I love that idea of kind of a wise council of elders is how I think of it. But your board of directors analogy, I think that’s so fun to play with for each one of us who would be on that board? Who are those people that are in that wise council? Just even the qualities that you’re choosing there. I think that in and of itself is really an interesting process. Okay, so great. Let’s just wrap up with the fourth step and really the fourth step is all about mobilization and deciding how to address the situation or to move on. So can you share a little bit about that part of it?

Tamar (23:02) Sure. So again, we have a double agenda with each of the steps. There’s a physical aspect of mobilization that’s going to be very helpful with anxiety because again, we can easily get into a freeze or blocked state just paralysis. Someone I know is about to move and they’re just feeling so overwhelmed with the process that they don’t know where to start again. That makes sense. But just knowing that some move one, move one step is better than stuck. So I think the illustration I have in the book for this mobilization strategy is a windup toy stuck against a wall. It’s sort of like the wheels are turning but it’s not going anywhere and we can really feel that way. And so if we can look at one brainstorming idea for this step is if you don’t ask yourself what’s the best thing to do, just start to brainstorm what are the different things I want to do? Let’s say you’re unhappy with your job or you want to start dating or you’re going to move, you might take a piece of paper and break it into eight parts and in each part you just put one of the things that you could do not in any particular order and then you look at them and you’ll start to generate a sense of what order you want to do things in. Or you could do random play. You put all of those notes into a bowl, you close your eyes and you pick one, you say, that’s where I’m starting. Once you start, usually we do know what we need, we really do. Anxiety gets in the way of our wisdom of what it is that we know that we need to do. And so just getting unstuck will help you then figure out what’s the better stuff. So I think a lot of these ideas, it’s really about just being humble and not needing the perfect step to help you right away. You take a step, it moves you out of stuck mode a little bit more, a little bit more than you feel better.

Shay (25:47) Yeah, such great wisdom in that just take a step. I think that’s really very, very wonderful. So Tamara, I want to talk a little bit about kids and anxiety and you have some really incredible tools. I love the website that you’ve created. It’s called worry wise kids.org. So worry wise kids.org has a ton of resources that I think could be very valuable to people that are listening. And you’ve also developed this master plan for taking charge of anxiety, which I thought was really quite fascinating because it has scripts and exercises and it’s presented to three different age groups primarily. So kids under the age of six and then kids that are kind of in middle school and then adolescents like 12 and up. So roughly those three age groups. And you have in this plan that it’s kind of like a parent’s master plan to work with their kids. These seven steps, and I’ll read them just to give our listeners a little bit of an overview and then you can go into why you think this plan is really beneficial as a parent if you have a child who’s struggling like how to approach. So the first step is to empathize with what your child is feeling. So empathy. The second step is to relabel the problem as the worry brain so that relabeling like we were discussing previously. Third is to rethink and shrink worry down to size. So shrinking it down to size. Number four is to get the body on board. So turn off the alarms and we’ll talk more about how you do that. Number five is to approach worry on purpose and to practice getting used to it. You use a little acronym for that GUTI getting used to it. Number six is to refocus on what you want to do. And then finally number seven is to reinforce your child’s efforts at being courageous. It’s such a wonderful step-by-step kind of master plan. But I wanted to give you a chance to talk about how you’ve utilized this in working with parents and what you see as being an important part of this tool.

Tamar (28:12) Sure. And you’ll notice that there’s those steps track onto the adult steps, but there are a few other things that we have added there in terms of empathy to start with because parents are, we are wired to make sure that our kids aren’t suffering. That’s our job. But to keep them safe. And what is very confusing and difficult at times is when our kids are upset about something to know that even though that feeling of swoop and rescue might be there, there’s another instinct in a sense that we have as parents, which is to really teach our kids how to navigate through the world. And so there’re going to be times when really the compassionate thing and the most helpful thing a parent can do is to be willing to stay in there with what their child is upset about and figure it out together. So the empathy, the first step is really about acknowledging what your child is experiencing and helping that nervous system step down in a sense by letting them know that what they’re feeling makes sense. You’re not saying that is the conclusion that they come home and something happened in the cafeteria and they’re so upset and they say, everybody hates me and I can’t go back to school. That conclusion isn’t what you’re endorsing, but you are with your empathy. You’re saying, I get it, that was a really hard thing that happened. I get why you feel like you can’t go back to school. I get that. Let’s talk it through. So that empathy, when we’re understood again, if we just think about ourselves because children are little versions of who we are, what do we like? You have a problem and you don’t want someone to tell you that it’s not a problem eventually maybe you want them to help you work it through, but the first thing that you want is for someone to say that makes sense that you’re feeling that way. That’s how you’re going to feel that safety that we were talking about earlier. Just that sense of sort of rightness that what you’re feeling makes sense for that moment. So the empathy with parents just I think that’s such an important step that we may overlook and it helps parents to downregulate too. If you just take that second we go into either swoop and rescue or fix it, oh, I’ll tell you, well this is what we can do tomorrow. I’ll talk to your teacher and we’ll make sure that none of the things happen at school and your child’s still really upset. So even though that’s a good, well-intentioned idea, it’s not really meeting your child where they are. So empathy is so important. And then shall I walk through the other steps that you’re, yeah,

Shay (31:49) We can totally walk through any parts of it that feel valuable to you to share. It’s interesting. One of the things I just thought based on what you just shared right now is in the hospital through integrative touch and the work that we do as an organization and we’ve worked with a lot of kids and families in the hospital and in the community through our healing center. But what came to understand that was almost universally true is that when a child had soup or high anxiety in the hospital, we would see there was high anxiety within the family system. So we would see that in the parents, in the primary caregivers, there was in one or more a pattern of really high anxiety. And I had read at one point that anxiety is one of the most contagious emotions that we pick it up very quickly and easily from others. And it made me think just sort of animal to animal, when you’re embedded in a family system that has high anxiety, how dysregulating that can be to your children. So it seems very important as we think about how to address anxiety as a parent, that part of how you address it is by looking within and noticing, wait a minute, where am I experiencing anxious feelings and which of these practices can I utilize to lower my own anxiety so that then that also helps my child to decrease what they’re experiencing. And I think that relational piece is really interesting and important.

Tamar (33:23) Absolutely. And if you’re encountering families in a hospital setting that again, you can imagine that that is a high anxiety situation for anyone and whether they were taught or supported in doing their own, touching into where they are and how to calm their nervous system, maybe they had that training. A lot of people across the world have not, but even if they did, it’s still a high anxiety situation and I think that’s a place where empathy, it’s we’re all a system really and the things, and this is where your work comes in. I think just understanding that making that a safe place for parents is going to allow them to be able to tend to their children differently as well. So as much as there can be an anxious system, there can be changes in that system when there’s understanding, which is just again, the power of us seeing each other in the situations that we’re in and leading with our heart and being there and just saying that it makes sense, it makes sense and I understand and I’m here for you and I want to help. But definitely in other places I talk about this work with parents and kids as a table for two, so we can’t, and you could also think of it as a twofer if you want to put it another way is that we have to, and we get to work on our own calming ourselves and our own anxious process. We get to and we need to in order to really help our kids as well. And so if it’s for parents to just take that breath and say, I can do this, or they’re okay, or this is normal, what’s happening or I have what I need, those little things that you say to yourself that’s going to help you be more effective. But you know what, even if you don’t remember any of the strategies that we talk about today, just knowing that if you take a step back and you can exhale and come to your child in that state, that is going to be so, so helpful. That picture, if you will, is worth a thousand words. Just if you’re saying I am here for you and I can be with you even in this distressed state and I am taking care of myself, you don’t have to worry about me. That’s so much of it. On top of that, then we can go these other places, which is really about just as we understand again how does anxiety work. There’s a thinking part of it. There are just automatic thoughts that are going to be catastrophizing. What if thing just racing ahead to the future, making predictions about things not in any helpful way and there’s a physical part of it and parents can then I think it’d be great to just talk about some strategies that parents can use in those two realms with their children, but think of it as this isn’t something wrong that’s going on. It’s sort of this is life that’s going on and we are the best teachers for our children to do that.

Shay (37:23) It’s interesting, this idea of increasing emotional selfregulation that you talk about in the book and you actually go through different strategies. To me as a parent myself, I feel like it’s been one of the most valuable tools is to just figure out how to regulate myself both in terms of my emotions and also my nervous system. Because in my own experience, the worst, worst parenting mistakes I’ve made always came out of when I was dysregulated in some way when my nervous system was not at its best when I wasn’t well-regulated in terms of my emotions and how I was managing the expression of those. And in contrast, the best parenting moments were when I felt really centered and calm and stable in both my nervous system and emotional regulation. So I really appreciated that you talk about these different strategies for emotional self-regulation and also some strategies for how to reset the nervous system. So I’m going to share just a few of the things and then you can on whatever one feels like it might be a good one that pops that you want to highlight. But you talk about things like visualizing degrees of separation, measuring the intensity, inviting the feelings that in so many others that they have experienced too, recognizing that empathy and acceptance starts with you having empathy and acceptance for yourself too, breathing versus bracing. So the importance of taking deep breaths when we’re feeling some stress and being the observer rather than the participant. So that also goes back to the labeling, being able to step outside and noticing carrying a witness self. Then coupled with that, you also talk about physiological approaches to resetting the nervous system and that can come through breath, through movement, through sound. These are all tangible tools that we can use for ourselves, but also that we can use as parents in relationship to parenting with our kids. So I thought it might be fun for you to touch a little bit on both, both of those types of practices for emotional and resetting the nervous system.

Tamar (39:53) And I think of it as it’s helpful to just choose your personal favorites, kind of your go-to it’s like, well, my kitchen is not very organized, but it’s an aspiration of mine. But if you put the can opener back in the same place every time, you know where to find it. So if you know where to find these tools, you’ve chosen your favorite things, you don’t think about it, you just say before you do anything else, you say, I’m putting my hands here. Nobody can even see, I don’t know if you can see on the video, but I’m putting my hands here and I’m just going to take a few seconds and I’m going to exhale. That is good for one person. Somebody else might say, I’m going to excuse myself because moving is what I need to do and I just need to kind of shake it out. What’s going to be helpful for my nervous system? Or I’m going to splash some cold water in my face, another nervous system, or I’m going to think on the other side of this moment, I’m going to think when we talk about this tomorrow morning, what’s going to happen? It’s really probably going to be kind of a non-issue. So just you may have your way that you, that speaks to you, just put it where you will remember it, have that identified so you can go to that place. So that will be worth so much and some of those things. That’s what we’re going to teach our kids too. I see that. I can tell you’re so upset right now and I want to understand, I want to talk it through. I feel like I need to just take a second and kind of shake it out. That story, just what you said, what you went through, I really feel that I just kind of need to shake it out and take a second, do you want to do that or do you want to do something else? So that could be another way you’re being honest, this is not like, oh, I’m going to do that so that I can sneak in a lesson about anxiety management. No, you really need it because it did get to you and you are going to be more effective if you can downregulate yourself first.

Shay (42:21) Yeah, that’s good. I liked you had an exercise in one of your books that’s a calendaring exercise. So I think an example you used is if someone’s going to be an empty nester, let’s say it’s four years from now and they’re already starting to worry about that. Instead they make a decision of like, okay, I’m going to plan to address that, to think about it, but here’s the date that I’m going to choose to do that. And that might be like two years from now, but you set a time where you say, I’m going to let this go for now, but I’m putting it in my calendar. I’m going to make a plan that that’s when I will address and start to really think about that and how I want to manage it. And just again, let sort of shifts you into a different part of the brain that’s not just in a place of fear, but that’s actually in a place of management, managing our worries and stresses and anxieties and so just simple little tools, but that can make a nice difference.

Tamar (43:19) Yeah, absolutely. And speaking of time long, I don’t even know who the first person was who brought this up. If I did, I would absolutely give them credit. But I feel like I learned about this 40 years ago or something. The idea of making appointments with yourself for the things that you’re worrying about. One of the things that’s very destabilizing about worry is just when you have something going on, it could be a very real serious thing, a sick child or some crisis in your family at the same time, thinking about it all the time is not going to help you to function better. And so even though the nervous system may say, have you have this pending thing, kind of keep it going all the time becomes a drain for us and we don’t function at our best. And so even though, and this can be sometimes a very tough kind of conversation with parents to say it’s really okay to make an appointment with your worry a few times a day where for five minutes you’re going to say the things that you’re worried about. And then another strategy that we haven’t talked about yet is I call it fact checking, just what’s the fear? And then on the other side of the page, what are the facts that you know about that situation that you designate those times a few times a day to free yourself up to be more functional at other times? Because prolonged stress does not do us good really in terms of our being sharp, being able, having resources. And so at the other times, let’s say you have something that you’re going to think about at noon and three and at seven or something. At the other times when the worry comes up, you say, I’ll be with you. I understand this is pending, this is important. I’ll be with you at noon and I’ll be with you at three o’clock. And one of the things that happens is you start to feel like you have more control in your life rather than the worry running you. So that’s been a longstanding idea of just how to, even though something is very important, it’s not adaptive to think about it all the time.

Shay (46:05) Absolutely.

Tamar (46:08) I think that’s an important thing that sometimes I have to remember heightened. I mean the pandemic itself is such a good example that thinking, just being in that space of uncertainty, discomfort, fear all the time led to a lot of problems of people. And again, there was no instruction. We had no instruction, we hadn’t been here before, but that led to worsening of feelings of anxiety and depression, hopelessness because there was no tiny reset to do something else, allowing the system to get some breathing room and get to a different place of functioning.

Shay (46:59) And you also talk about the signs when someone’s kind of crossing over from worry into what we would classify in western medicine as an anxiety disorder. So I’m wondering if you could share a little bit with our listeners about how you identify the difference between those two.

Tamar (47:17) Sure. Yeah. So the way that the medical profession, our system defines a disorder period really is that something is time consuming or interferes with functioning or causes a lot of distress. So you could have things that everybody has, things that they worry about. I hope that in talking about these ideas that even if listeners don’t have an anxiety disorder, they’re just getting some ideas about how to process more adaptively the things that come up in their life. But certainly for people who are listening, they may also feel like this is something that it sort of has a mind of its own at this point. They wake up worrying, they don’t know how to get out from under that. It’s determining their decisions, who they connect with, what they do with their children, with their work, where they live, whatever it may be. And that is causing distress for them. It’s helpful to get treatment, which can make a huge difference in their lives. Anxiety is the most common psychiatric, if you want to call it that disorder, and it’s the most treatable as well.

Shay (48:56) So Tamar, another thing that you offer are strategies for generating a strengths list. And I really loved this idea of creating a strengths list and I thought I would ask why you think this is so valuable and maybe you could share a little bit more about what it is to create a strengths list.

Tamar (49:16) And this is really for kids or adults. I’m not sure where you saw that, Shay, but yeah, when I introduce that idea, I say that there’s this game that people play where you put the name of a famous person on your forehead and you have to guess who you are. Everybody else knows, but you’re asking questions to find out who your famous person is. I feel like our strengths are kind of that mystery to us. Everybody else sees and they love about us, what they enjoy about us, what we’re good at, just who we are in a sense. But that may be elusive to us. And so whether it’s your child or for adults to think about, just you can go back and think about compliments that people gave you that were meaningful to you. Just going back and thinking about that, thinking about what role you play in your workplace, in your family, the things that you enjoy about yourself and make sure for parents, it’s really important to make sure that your kids know the things that you really enjoy and admire about them and that you use those things in a sense. I talk about chores a lot because that is something that helps us to build resilience, doing things that maybe we don’t love to do. The research is long, long supporting that and for parents that you can think about what are the things that your child is good at a chore, a way that they’re contributing might have to do with your child’s wonderful aesthetic sense that they’re going to set the table beautifully or they’re great organizers. And this is something that I definitely, my children have helped in the contributing to the family. Good. They’re both very organized people and say, look, how about the kitchen cabinets or things like the record collection or something like that. Just really seeing what the things that they are really strong in and just their nature and making use of that in your daily life.

Shay (52:09) Yeah, that’s wonderful to identify that and within a family system to identify the various strengths of each member of the family. So as you know, we’re having this conversation, we’re talking about ways that you can free yourself from anxiety as you start to do that. It also opens up space in your life for other positive things to come in and in your books at different stages, you talk about things like cultivating empathy, compassion, which we’ve touched on in our conversation today. Gratitude and how those practices, for example, gratitude practices could start to fill up some of that space that was busily occupied with anxious thoughts. And so I want to learn more about how you would advise people that are listening to cultivate empathy, compassion, and gratitude in their lives.

Tamar (53:02) Yeah, that’s a great question. And the gratitude practice there is research supporting that people who reflect on what they’re grateful for, not every day, this is great. This seemed like you can get a break from your homework. It doesn’t have to be every day, but a few times a week that they experience greater satisfaction in life, mood improvement, more satisfying relationships, things like that. Even. I think all of those kinds of aspects of how we function can support the body too. Less inflammation, just improved health, it’s all connected. When we feel safe, the body does better. So yeah, I will go in and out for myself a gratitude practice that there’ll be months when I don’t necessarily kind of intentionally do that at nighttime or something before I go to bed. But when I float back into that, and it’s just such a nice thing that families can share together is thinking about what you really noticed in your day. Sometimes I think in one of the books I say gratitude is not ude, I make up words, but back in the day we might have felt that being grateful was a little bit of guilt induction and something like that. You should be grateful. And really we want this to be more of a welcome mat, open door experience for our children and ourselves. And just thinking about what you noticed that moved you, that you appreciated with kids that might be what they thought was funny or surprising in their day, and you just sort of get that noticing circuit going and that again, that reflection is really helpful in just creating space that’s not anxiety and increasing your bandwidth that allows you to connect more to your own life and to other people.

Shay (55:24) I’m curious, you’ve obviously, you’ve written books, you’ve got websites that have a ton of great resources around anxiety and some of the topics we’ve covered today. I’m curious why you have chosen to make this your life’s work.

Tamar (55:43) Well, this started as I think many things happen that there’s sort of, you happen into something and it turns out to be exactly where you need to be. So when I went to graduate school, I really wanted to be able to work with people soon right away. And usually in a lot of graduate programs, you have to wait a while before you can do that. And so there was a professor who was running this treatment study for a 16 week treatment for anxious kids. And I thought, okay, great. I want to learn how to do anything, so I’ll do that. And then it was love at first sight essentially. I remember one of the first children that I treated in this study was this little girl with social anxiety and she didn’t feel like she could ask to go to the bathroom, talk to a friend, anything like that. Just really suffering with so many anxious thoughts about connecting and it was really limiting her life. And so this treatment was cognitive behavior therapy, which is the treatment of choice for anxiety. And that just means working on how you think about predictions and situations and practicing until you feel more confident. So we were going to do what we call a courage challenge or exposure, which is a practice opportunity to go ask somebody in my department what time it was at that point, no cell phones, people wore watches, you had to ask what time it was. And so we practiced and she was feeling good, and then she put her hand on the door to go do this and she said, but I don’t know how to do this. It was just like, all good, we’ll sit down, we’ll practice some more. There was just, I think the practical aspect of just meeting someone where they are and when they’re ready with practice, it’s not magically that you’ll be ready. This is a skill. It’s really a skill-based kind of approach that we just needed to do some more practice and then she was ready to do it. So I loved, and I loved that practical aspect of it and that kids really owned the process and felt better and got better, but participated more in their lives. They weren’t suffering and struggling. So from there, and also I joke that I have the right look I think for this kind of work, just I am five, two and a half and pretty friendly. I’ve been told I have the right to get up for that. So yeah, it’s just from there that really, that was the direction that I have not looked back and yeah.

Shay (59:07) That’s great. And when you think about that child you were describing who you worked with so early in your career and then all of the patients and families and individuals and adults, everybody that you’ve worked with since, when you start to formulate for yourself an understanding of what it means to heal, as you’ve watched people move through challenges like anxiety, how they’ve developed skill, how they’ve begun to make positive changes in their lives that allow them to live in a way that’s more aligned with the life that they actually foresee and want for themselves, how have you come to understand or in what way would you define or describe what healing is based on all of that experience?

Tamar (59:51) I think that healing is, it’s a process that is having a greater connection with our own experience, understanding it in a way that makes sense to us and that allows us to move forward. And I think healing is a great kind of concept or framework for the work of anxiety because I think at the beginning of a treatment or even just a process of hopefully folks listening today thinking, wow, I didn’t understand what was going on with me. I am not crazy. This is what everybody experiences, that you start to connect with yourself rather than feeling disconnected from yourself because of these experiences that are part of the human experience that are not your fault, not your doing, but they’re things that you can really do to think and choose. Instead of just going with the anxious thought and deciding that that is the prediction you’re going to go with, that you do your fact checking, you understand that that’s your job with, and that’s your opportunity in a sense with just what life is like with the brains that we have in the modern world. This is something I can do and I understand why this is happening, this is how I can think about it. This is how I can get help for it. This is how I can practice and make changes. This is where I can pivot to. It’s, there’s a sense of agency I think that happens where it’s not the things out there that are happening to us, it’s really how we are walking our path. And I think healing is so much about that. So I think it really matches up very well.

Shay (1:02:04) I love that idea of it being a shift in agency, that it’s not the things that happen to you, but how you’re able to work with heal process, restore what happens from an inside out lens rather than a fear-based lens, which is like, Ooh, scary things can happen to me. What then? But more of a resilient lens, which is I have the capacity to deal with whatever comes my way, such a different sense of agency in those two ways of orienting or seeing the world.

Tamar (1:02:36) Yeah, and I just want to to add that in my experience, this is not a one way trip that way. I want to demystify resilience that there are times when you feel resilient people, anyone can feel like they don’t have agency, and it’s not like, okay, then you’re out of the race, disqualified. But really that we encounter things in life that we don’t feel prepared for, we don’t know how to tackle, and then we work through them and hopelessness sits right next to hope. It’s not that resilient people, maybe they do and I haven’t met them, that it’s not required that you don’t feel hopelessness as a part of your healing process. You probably do, and you see that you go use zigzag. You might go back and forth between those, but you understand that you can pivot somewhere else, and then another time you find yourself back in that hopeless place, that’s okay. That’s not disqualified. So I just really, again, you take the analogy of healing that that’s very rarely is it just sort of a beautiful continuous move upward of progress that it really, some days are better than others,

Shay (1:04:15)Often a lot of stumbling along the way. For sure. Is there anything else, Tamar, that we didn’t cover that you feel is important to share in this conversation today?

Tamar (1:04:27) It’s been a wonderful journey and I just really appreciate the opportunity to talk about these things, and I just hope that people feel more comfortable being human with conversations like these about healing. That is our potential. That is how we are wired to grow, to heal. And it’s not always going to feel good, but that’s probably means that you’re right on the right path. That’s just the nature of it.

Shay (1:05:03) Yeah, that’s so valuable. Well, I appreciate your level of empathy and compassion, and like I said, I think what is fabulous in some of your books that I read is just they are very compassionate and also skills-based, right? There’s a lot of tools so that when people are struggling, I think it can be an anchor and something to help them in a positive sense to hold onto of like, okay, here’s some specific things that I can do either for myself or for my child, and that will help to ground me in a time of a lot of uncertainty because so much of anxiety lives from that place of life, carries with it inevitably a tremendous amount of uncertainty, and we’re all finding our way to navigating that. So I think you do a great job of helping people along that path. So I want to thank you very much for your work, and thank you for this conversation today on healing. Tamar (1:06:04) Thank you so much, Shay. It’s been great talking with you.

Conclusion (1:06:11) We hope you enjoyed this episode of The Conversations on Healing podcast. If you haven’t yet, please go to Apple Podcast, Spotify or your preferred podcast platform and subscribe, rate, and review. This podcast, it helps so you won’t miss an episode. See you next time.