Great Resource for Anxiety for People of Any Age

So here’s my theory about Lawrence J Cohen’s great book “The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxiety and Fears.” He wrote a book for anxious parents and then decided he would have more luck getting them to read it if he said it was for helping their kids be less anxious.

I love the title and for that alone is worth it; the absence of anxiety isn’t the opposite of anxiety. Feeling playful, full of creativity, joyful as when we are goofing around with someone we love that is the opposite of anxiety. Cohen really emphasizes parents and kids feeling connected rather than simply focusing on behaviour, something I really appreciate.

The book is full of great, practical approaches to anxiety that anyone can use. Hug yourself when feeling anxious, wrap both arms over the opposite shoulder, alternate pats or squeezes on the opposite shoulder. It feels warm and embracing, it requires a little cognitive and kinaesthetic work, so it takes us out of our anxiety, it is easy to remember for a person who is feeling freaked out.

It also contains a lot of wisdom addressed to anxious parents (a.k.a. the part of ourselves that might think other people’s anxiety is a problem but our own is absolutely reasonable and the only thing keeping us together.)

If you know you are safe, but you still feel anxious, then you may welcome a chance to lower your anxiety. If you believe you are in danger, however, then it would be foolish to relax. You need to be prepared to act at a moment’s notice. That’s why some highly anxious children angrily reject suggestions to relax. Abe [a] boy who was ... afraid of thunderstorms, once said to his mother, ‘three deep breaths are not going to stop us from being hit by lightning’

Finally, Cohen takes a very humble and humane attitude towards his clients, friends, family and himself in this book; he is definitely not the all-knowing therapist who understands clients much better than they can understand themselves. He learns from kids and parents alike about how to manage anxiety.

Extinction is good for you.

Why do most people bounce back from a traumatic experience after a few weeks or months when others struggle for years with anxiety or PTSD?  What protects some people from the effects of trauma?  What can we do to promote resiliency from trauma? The answer might have to do with 'extinction.'

In psychological parlance 'extinction' can be a good thing.  Extinction means 'unlearning' a conditioned response.  Remember Pavlov and his dogs?  Ring the bell and feed the dogs, eventually the dogs will salivate at the sound of the bell.  That is conditioning.  Well, after a while if they get their food without the bell, the conditioning wears off and the dogs don't salivate anymore, and that is extinction learning; learning that something that was once associated with an experience may not be connected to that experience.

Maladaptive trauma responses, including disorders like PTSD, probably have something to do with conditioned response.  People with PTSD may associate all sorts of things with the original trauma so they are triggered to re-experience the trauma by a smell or sound, or they seek to avoid being in situations which call to mind the trauma, even though objectively those circumstances aren't dangerous.  Richard Bryant, a researcher into responses to trauma, has done a really smart prospective study that suggests that a person's pre-trauma capacity for 'extinction learning', his or her ability to 'unlearn' the connection between a negative experience and the circumstances surrounding it, is very predictive of the ability to bounce back from trauma.  He describes it at about 31 minutes of this video.  The whole video is interesting but this piece is only about four minutes.  

Here's the study for those of you interested in checking it out.  Bryant doesn't talk about what predisposes people to be better or worse 'extinction learners.'  Some of it probably has to do with genetic factors.  I would be curious to know to what degree cognitive flexibility, the ability to change one's ideas about the world, correlates with extinction learning.  Cognitive flexibility can be enhanced by all sorts of things.  If you want to test your cognitive flexibility, some of these tests, like the Stroop test, are good measures.  In the interests of full disclosure I did pretty badly on the Stroop test.  Not sure what that means for my chance of extinction.