Learning to Dance with Anxiety
Finding and modeling self-compassion helps me and my daughter.
“I hate my anxiety! I HATE IT!” my ten-year-old’s voice rose in pitch and intensity, tears winding their way down her cheeks. Her sympathetic nervous system, like mine, had been launching her too often and too easily into a stressed state of “fight or flight” mode.
It was one of many moments when the words I had kept carefully hidden away in my own mind seemed to leap forth out of my daughter’s mouth. I knew the feeling all too well and had desperately wanted to shield her from it. Her words stung in a place deep down that had been unknown to me until I became a mother and saw my most tender vulnerabilities on display in another person.
When I was pregnant with her, my anxiety skyrocketed. I prayed for God to wire her brain differently than mine, preventing the formation of the well-worn pathways to worry that had plagued me for so long. The first year of her life was the most difficult year of mine. I watched myself transform into a different person but didn’t have the awareness to call it postpartum depression until I was diagnosed after I had my second child. I wanted more than anything to be rid of my mental health issues and set out to do everything I could to fight them. Despite all of my efforts, my anxiety escalated and I started to experience panic attacks regularly. My declining mental health felt like failure.
While I was in the throes of postpartum depression with my second daughter, I began to see glimpses of anxiety showing up in my firstborn. When she started preschool, she hardly ate any of her lunch every school day for almost the entire school year. I attributed it to picky eating until one day, I said to my husband, “I’m so anxious, I can’t even eat.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew in an instant that my daughter’s lack of appetite was due to anxiety. My frustration about her crying, clinging, and throwing fits whenever I dropped her off at school melted. This wasn’t a behavior problem. It was an anxiety problem. While I didn’t always have the capacity to meet it with the presence, energy, and compassion I wanted to offer, my approach to her behavior shifted. It wasn’t just an inconvenient problem we had to figure out how to stop. Instead, it served as a messenger that was sounding the alarm of distress as she cried out for help in the only way she knew how.
The conundrum of being a mom with anxiety who is parenting a kid with anxiety is that often the best way to help our children is to experience healing, ourselves, but our own distress can be triggered by that of our children. I daydreamed about how it would feel for the two of us to live without anxiety and the looming fear of panic attacks. As I imagined myself freed from these burdens, the whisper of a new thought rose to the surface: To be rid of this part of myself would be to become less sensitive, less passionate, and less awake to the suffering in the world. I was startled by the realization that perhaps I had been asking for the wrong thing all along. I thought of the depths of compassion for others that I had developed as a result of my pain. I recalled how this new empathy had moved me to join with others in learning about systems of oppression and taking action to make the world a more just place for marginalized communities.
As my daughter grows and matures, I see in her a similar passion for justice and compassion for those who are suffering, and I can’t help but think that the sensitivity that makes her anxious also makes her highly empathetic. Her fifth-grade teacher noted, “I have really seen her open up and become passionate this year. Even with all her insecurities, I could see an activist coming out of her.” Maybe it was actually because of her sensitivity, sometimes presenting as insecurity, that she was becoming an activist—a person who notices and feels the pain in the world so deeply that she is compelled to speak up and do something about it. As I experienced this shift in perspective, her anxiety was becoming more persistent and pervasive, interfering with schoolwork and everyday life. Maybe instead of battling it, which had left us exhausted and frustrated, we needed to learn how to dance with it. I had to learn how to dance with my own anxiety before I could model this self-compassion for her.
I fumbled through the new dance steps awkwardly at first. I practiced treating my anxiety like a little child in need of compassion and care. I tuned in to my body, noticing the signals that told me it needed attention, and invited anxiety to come along with me instead of trying to shoo it out the door. I asked it to tell me what it needed and listened for its wisdom. Like a crying preschooler scooped up in her mother’s arms, my anxiety seemed to respond well to the new arrangement. The more I shifted my perspective of my own mental health issues, once the source of so much shame, the better equipped I became to help her walk her own journey with self-compassion.
“I hate my anxiety,” my daughter said again, in a voice just above a whisper. She sounded exhausted and resigned to being someone she didn’t want to be.
“I know; it’s no fun. I’m so sorry. But you know, people who are anxious are smart and sensitive and care a lot about things, and I love that about you,” I said even as I invited my own anxiety, triggered by hers, to pull up a chair and sit with us.
The Greek roots of the word “sympathy” mean “feeling with.” My sympathetic nervous system, highly sensitive to and in tune with her well-being, often releases a flood of my own anxiety so that I “feel with” her deeply. Though I wouldn’t wish for this discomfort for either of us, I began to wonder if perhaps it is a point of connection that could lead to healing.
“Mommy, will you breathe with me?” she asked quietly, reaching out her not-so-little hand so that I could hold it in mine. I felt her warm skin against the palm of my hand and wondered for the millionth time how this miracle had formed within my very own body. She closed her eyes and we inhaled slowly together. After the exhale, I reminded her, “In the nose and out the mouth.”
“Why?” she asked, her busy mind always curious.
“I don’t know . . . that’s just what everyone says to do,” I said, smiling.
So we sat there together, our bodies attuning to the rhythm of our synchronized breathing, our hands clasped together. In that moment, peace flowed between us even in the midst of the discomfort. Anxiety was still present but was no longer an enemy. The holy ground between us didn’t feel like a battlefield at all. Though clumsy at times and ever-evolving, it felt just like dancing.
I’ve released myself from the expectation of quick fixes and easy solutions and have made peace with the fact we may be on this road for the long haul. We will use all of the tools in our toolbox, employing prayer, therapy, breathing exercises, and whatever tips and tricks we learn along the way, but with all my heart, I want my daughter to learn that as God’s beloved image bearer, she is more than the state of her mental health at any given moment. When she is at peace with her own discomfort and unique way of being in the world, maybe she can allow her sensitivity to fuel compassionate action on behalf of others. I want her to cease to be at war with herself because a person who is at war internally cannot make peace externally. When her anxiety is high and the shame tries to creep in, I want to teach her how to lay down her weapons and dance.
Cover image by Olivia Bauso.