Tag: Fear

Returning to Joy

At my son’s final swim lesson of the season, the instructor led my 7-year old to the deep end of the pool to practice freestyle swimming. This step removes the temptation to stand on the bottom of the pool and, instead, turn to the side in order to take a breath. When Matthew initially tried this new step, he successfully navigated the process – until it was time to breathe. He tried to put his feet down and, as you can imagine, when he could not reach the bottom his survival circuit kicked in. He freaked out, bobbed under the surface, then swallowed some water. This startled him. He lost it and started screaming.

I jumped into action and grabbed him from the pool. I quickly wrapped him in a towel then helped him calm down by rubbing his back. As he quieted I affirmed how scary it was to end up with water in his mouth instead of air. He quickly agreed with my assessment. He then said, “I don’t want to get back into the pool…EVER!”

I again validated how scary it is to feel like we cannot breathe. Next, I comforted and assured him that he was going to be ok. When he appeared calm I reminded him that he knows how to paddle as well as float on his back in the water. I said, “Matthew, whenever you need to catch your breath all you have to do is practice one of these options that you already know.” He now looked intrigued. I could tell he was processing this and, after doing the math, he decided it was time to return to the pool. Remembering he had skills at his disposal allowed him to successfully complete his swimming lesson. Thankfully, he ended the pool training adventure on a positive note.

In this case I could help Matthew return to joy from his fear. Every one of us has big feelings and it is wonderful when we can help our children learn how to navigate their big feelings so they do not get stuck or develop unhelpful strategies to avoid certain emotions. The goal of returning to joy is to discover we can survive big emotions by feeling, sharing and quieting the emotions. We learn to use validation and comfort as the one-two punch whenever big feelings arise, but the validation must come first.

When we validate, “Oh my! This was really scary for you!” before we comfort, “I am glad to be with you in this. You are going to be alright!” it helps our children to better receive our comfort. When we put the cart before the horse and try to offer comfort before the validation with, “You are fine” children will not feel as seen and understood. At this point it is difficult for them to receive our comfort and they are left feeling alone and misunderstood.

Let’s look at another return to joy example, this time from anger. Matthew hit his little brother with a toy the other day. As a consequence, I took the toy away. Matthew was very sad to lose his new toy. I acknowledged how sad he was feeling. I affirmed how sad it can be to miss out on the fun a special toy provides. “I sure would feel upset if I lost my new toy as well!” I told him. By validating his feelings, I can then enter in and share his experience with him, even though I am the source of his displeasure in this situation. After validating him I can offer comfort and help him quiet his feelings. I say, “There are other toys you can play with tonight and tomorrow you can have your toy back if you are kind to your brother.”

In order to train your children in these important relational skills, you have to be able to return to joy yourself. If you are unable to return to joy from the emotion your child is feeling, you may end up minimizing their feelings or you may feel inadequate to join them in their feelings. Even though our intentions may be good, we can shut our children down when they experience emotions we cannot manage ourselves. This does not make us a bad parent but it does explain why the emotions we parents struggle with are the very same emotions our children struggle with as well. The six negative emotions are sadness, anger, disgust, shame, fear and hopeless despair. Which of these emotions do you find difficult?

Learn more about return to joy in the RARE Leadership book and Skill 11 in Transforming Fellowship. If you want to practice the brain skill, I hope you will join us for one of our hands-on THRIVE Training events. If you missed the previous posts in the series on RARE Leadership in the home check out Remaining Relational here or Acting Like Myself here.

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Facing Frightening Fears

Matthew has not learned to swim. Over the last several years my 7 year-old son has participated in a number of swimming lessons – to no avail. He refuses to put his face into the water. When he is part of a group lesson, the teacher simply does not have the time to coax or calm his fears because children are waiting in line. One well-intentioned instructor actually increased his fear by dunking him under the water – to prove there is nothing to fear. Yeah, that’s going to work! His approach sounded good in theory but did not calm an already anxious brain that needed a specialized solution during a highly anxious moment.

I have been excited this summer to help my son learn the basic skill of swimming. It is my desire for him to know how to swim so he will not drown in case he ever falls or is pushed into a pool without his “swimmies” on. I decided to pursue private lessons in order for him to have an experienced teacher take the time to help him learn this new skill and overcome his fears.

Thankfully, I found a wonderful girl in town who agreed to give both of my sons swimming lessons. Last week we went to her pool for the first lesson. It started out well. Matthew enjoyed his time in the water – up to the point she asked him to “bob” under the water and submerge his head. He quickly resisted her request, and expressed his fear about getting water up his nose. At this point she gently taught him the trick of blowing air out his nose when he dips under the water. After some practice he lowered his face under the water and blew air out of his nose. With a big smile he was delighted to report no water seeped into his nose!

I thought this was the end of our water struggles. Once he practiced putting his face in the water and blowing bubbles, she then asked him to try “bobbing” under the water by keeping his face under for a moment. With some energy he said “NO!” then started crying saying he was going to sink if he went under the water. I felt my stomach drop and tried to calm him down – to no avail. He then climbed out of the pool, curled into a ball and cried. He then begged to stay out of the water. I knew he was having big feelings at this point and his brain’s relational circuits were offline.

I took a breath and tried helping him calm down some more. In desperation, I next tried to bribe him with ice cream if he followed the teacher’s instructions. I tried reasoning with him and pointed out that he was not going to sink. After all, the teacher was right next to him and could help him if he needed a hand! Nope. Nothing. No words helped as his brain’s survival circuit at this point was kicked into full gear so it was time to feel safe – outside of the pool. We finished the lesson with Andrew, my 5-year old, paddling around and going under the water like a fish, begging to jump in again and again.

On our drive home Matthew was still visibly upset. He looked at me and said, “I wish I was like Andrew, because he is not afraid of the water!” I felt my heart sink. He genuinely wanted to follow the teacher’s instructions. He really wanted to swim. There was only one problem. His will power was no match for his big fears. You see, he was feeling terror in the brain’s emotional control center, what we call Level 2. You can read this article for more on this part of the brain but the fear responses at this level are big, bad and scary. This is not a relational part of the brain so we simply react and try to survive a scary encounter.

I knew that words and information would not fix this problem – nor would bribes or pleas. This part of the brain is subcortical (below the brain’s cortex so it’s deep) and is not subject to will power or coercion. This is the area of the brain where phobias, fears and post traumatic stress strikes so the reactions are intense, unmanageable and overwhelming. I knew my son needed a better intervention if he was going to put his head under the water.

When we arrived home, I pulled him aside and talked about his fear. I said, “Matthew, I also feel really afraid of things, like being too high off the ground.” He was now curious to hear how I handle my fear. I knew this was the perfect time to tell some good stories demonstrating how I faced my fear of heights. I pointed out how his water fear is similar to the fear he used to have with bees, only now he has learned to calm himself instead of panicking when a bee approaches. We reviewed how he calms down when bees buzz around him. He starts by taking deep breaths. He notices how he feels in his body, which helps to activate the captain in the brain’s control center, what we call Level 4. This is the brain region God has given us to calm our strong Level 2 reactions. Now Matthew was eager to try the same “trick” to see if it would help his swimming fears.

When it was time for the next lesson, we reviewed what to do if he was afraid. We practiced deep belly breaths. We noticed how how his body felt. I assured him that if he was too afraid, he did not have to put his head in the water. This was his choice. I am glad to say, the lesson was a success! Yes, he was nervous. Instead of amplifying his fear he calmed  himself by taking deep breaths like we practiced. He put his head under the water. With the help of an incredibly patient teacher, Matthew was improving his ability to “dip” and “bob” in the water. At the end of the lesson he said, “Mommy! I am not afraid of the water anymore!” We celebrated.

In this case Matthew was able to override his strong fears. It is important to say that not every fear will resolve this quickly and cleanly. In fact, Matthew’s fears will likely arise again, so we will need to practice his quieting skills over and over. There is the glorious hope that each of us no longer have to miss out on the things we want to do in life because of our fear. Once we learn how to activate the captain in our brain (Level 4) we can greatly improve our ability to handle the situations where we feel the intense Level 2 fear. We can also learn how to process pain and disarm the landmines that rob our joy.

You can learn more about the power of stories here.

Read how Jesus disarmed fear and conquered a scary snow monster here.

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My Mad Mommy Moment

The other day Andrew was not doing what I asked him to do. He was repeatedly getting distracted from his task. I felt my frustration intensify with each reminder. By the fourth reminder I yelled, “Andrew – DO IT NOW!” As soon as the words flew out of my mouth I observed his little face crumple. His eyes teared up. I felt horrible.

My heart sank. My irritation took a back seat to sadness and shame as I realized my intense reaction hurt my son. He usually listens well. He regularly follows through when I ask him to do something. Andrew has a sweet and tender spirit. Usually a little correction goes a long way with him. I just overwhelmed and scared him. Ugh; I felt so bad.

Once I noticed his reaction, I sat down on the floor next to him. Looking into his eyes, I invited him onto my lap. He tearfully agreed. I held him and apologized for yelling at him. I validated his big feelings and after a few moments he calmed down. We started smiling together. After returning to joy I pointed out that we both had some things to work on for better interactions in the future. I mentioned how I needed to calm myself before talking to him when I feel angry and upset. I should not yell in my frustration. His job in all of this is to use his listening ears and obey the first time I ask him to do something. We agreed we could both do better with practice.

I look back on this interaction and I can see my relational brain had taken a hiatus during my mounting upset. I did not use Skill 2 to self-quiet or Skill 12 to remain my relational self during upset. As parents, we are not going to do things perfectly. We can’t expect to get it right every time. The good news is we have the opportunity to repair with our children once we realize the areas we could do things better. It is good to acknowledge we were wrong and it is helpful to tell our sons and daughters how we would like to handle things differently next time. This time of connection is both healing and redemptive.

In this instance I caught my mistake right away. Thankfully, I was able to attune with Andrew in his distress – that I had caused. Admittedly, there are times when seeing my child’s response to my over-the-top reaction doesn’t stop me in my tracks. There are times when my son’s reaction increases my anger. Those are the times there is a delay before I recognize the need for repair and we can return to joy together. Thankfully those repairs still count!

There are many days I have parenting fails and wish I was doing a better job. Even though I am working on the 19 skills and using relational skills in my parenting, I still mess up. I am so thankful that the goal is not to be the “perfect parent” since that goal is unattainable. The more manageable goal is to get really good at repairing when things go wrong.

I hope you give yourself grace this week when, not if, you make mistakes. May God guide your focus and energy to repair when things go wrong. I am now convinced we parents should be the best repairers in the entire world because we get so much practice each day.

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The Big Bad Buzzing Bees

Last summer Matthew, my 7 year-old son, was stung two times. One time a bee got him while a wasp stung him the second time. These moments made a BIG impression on him. He quickly formed a strong opinion that bees and wasps are BAD and SCARY. It was clear his brain’s fight or flight circuit created an opinion and filed these fears for the future.

Because the second sting happened towards the end of summer, we did not see much of a change in his behavior. The bugs simply disappeared for the year so the threat was gone. Now that the warm weather is back and the flowers are starting to bloom, the bees are out in full force. I have noticed Matthew is showing signs of fear whenever he goes outdoors and spots a bee. He watches the bees closely then runs away at the slightest movement. His brain’s alarm bell is ringing loudly.

I recently took my two sons to a trail near my house so they could ride their bikes. It was a beautiful, sunny day. The yellow dandelions adorned the grass all around our path. As you can imagine, Matthew quickly noticed a bee along the path. He instantly swerved his bike to avoid the bee and get as far away as possible. He rode his bike off the trail, into the grass. A few minutes later he again ran his bike off the path trying to avoid an insect he thought could be a bee. He repeated this behavior several more times as we tried to enjoy our ride in the lovely sunshine. He panicked anytime he spotted something floating in the air that could possibly be a bee buzzing around.

The threat of a bee sting took over his desire to ride his bike and enjoy the outdoors. He was functioning in a constant “fight or flight” mode. While I encouraged him to take some deep breaths whenever he saw a possible bee, he couldn’t calm down. We shortened our bike ride and returned home. It was clear we were not going to enjoy the outdoors as long as my son’s fears were intensely activated.

Once safe in our home I began talking with my son about his fear. I told him how Mommy used to be terrified of bees. Using my body and voice, I acted out how I used to panic and run screaming whenever I saw a bee. My son started laughing and we laughed together. At this point I noticed a bee flying near our patio door so I walked over and pointed out to Matthew that the bee no longer scared me. Trying to inspire his curiosity, I asked him if he wanted to learn my “secret” how I learned to calm myself. He was intrigued.

I said, “Usually bees will leave you alone unless they feel threatened. Because bees can react to someone who is afraid and moves in a way that is threatening to them, they are more likely to sting if you react when you are afraid.” I told him when I learned my fear could increase the chances I would be stung, I was motivated to learn how to calm my fear.

The part of our brain that is responsible for the fight or flight response is also the root of phobias (in our training we call this Level 2 of the brain’s emotional control center). It is the area of the brain in charge once our fears increase and become strong. This brain region is non-relational, often irrational, and we can’t be talked out of being afraid. The best way to calm this region is to activate the area of our right frontal lobe called the prefrontal cortex (PFC – what we call Level 4). Level 4 is the Captain of the emotional brain and is the only region of the brain that can calm Level 2, the fear center. One of the best ways to activate Level 4 is to pay attention to how your body feels, so we can scan our body as we breathe deeply to calm ourselves.

I shared with Matthew that I learned to calm myself by taking deep breaths and pay attention to how my belly feels as I breathe deeply. I said, “Does my belly still feel tight and in knots, or do I feel calm? If my belly isn’t calm, then I need to keep taking more breaths and notice when my belly begins to feel calm again.”

Later that day we went outside. Whenever Matthew noticed something flying around, we practiced taking deep breaths and noticed how our bellies were doing. After several days of practice, he ran over to me one afternoon from the playground. With a big grin he shared, “Mommy, there was a bee right next to me and I didn’t even run away!” We both rejoiced that he had worked so hard to calm his fears and he was already seeing some results.

Sometimes the fears children have seem irrational and we may be tempted to discount or disregard our children’s fears. There may be times our own fears are irrational so we try to dismiss them. We can deal with fears that spring up by learning to calm these fears so they don’t paralyze us. This is an important brain skill and there can be times we need to share our fears with someone who is really good at calming down from intense fears so they can help us. Sometimes we need to improve our ability to notice how our body is feeling and practice breathing in order to calm ourselves. Sometimes we focus on the things that bring us joy. As always, it is a good rule of thumb to interact with Immanuel about our fears until we reach peace. We can train our brain to quiet fears so we learn, as a Psalmist once wrote, “I will not die but live!” (118:17)

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Jesus Met Me In My MRI

Continued from last week…

When I arrived at the hospital I was immediately interviewed by an admitting nurse about my symptoms. In addition to the numbness and tingling in my arm, I was showing signs of weakness in my right arm and leg. These symptoms concerned the nurse so she called a doctor to examine me. He quickly notified the stroke team then they cleared a room for me. Here is when the craziness started!

Suddenly there were 14 people in my room asking me questions. They began poking and touching me to identify what I could feel. They asked about my family history and pressed me about previous medical conditions. I answered, “I have none!” They asked, “If you had to live with your current symptoms, how would this impact your life?” Surprised by this question, I noticed my head start to swirl. I wasn’t sure what to say.

The medical team informed me they believed I was having a minor stroke. The big question was whether to give me a “clot-busting” drug. At this point they told me 6% of people who take this drug end up with catastrophic bleeding on the brain, 30% of people experience relief from their symptoms, and the remainder experience nothing. Because it took me so long after my initial symptoms to get to the ER, I had 30 minutes left in order to decide what to do before the window closes to take the medicine. No pressure!

There was no time for an MRI to confirm or rule out a stroke. This information would have been helpful to make a decision about the medication. I noticed my anxiety levels increase. My breathing grew shallow and knots rolled and formed in my stomach. I called Chris and explained the decision. Before we could discuss anything, the doctors asked me to call him back so they could talk to me. They recommended against the medicine because my symptoms were minor. Weighed against the risks of taking the drug, they felt I should not take it. I was relieved to hear their recommendation! Their thoughts lined up with my thoughts.

I was still very overwhelmed. My head was spinning with all the information, the risks and the unknown. They decided to take me for an MRI to look at my head and neck. While I don’t consider myself claustrophobic, I do have a fear of heights. Both fears come from the same region in the brain’s emotional control center. I wondered how I would last packed into the loud and narrow machine.

This was the first MRI in my life. Once they wedged my head into the headrest and moved me into the tube, I started to panic. I closed my eyes and focused on taking deep breaths. Quieting is what the brain needs when we experience intense fears so I noticed how my body felt as I calmed down. Paying attention to our body helps to activate the “Captain” in the brain that can override the fear center responsible for phobias. I began to share with Immanuel that I was afraid and I did not like feeling smashed into this tube. I asked for His peace.

As the words floated out of my mind I noticed an overwhelming sense of peace wash over me. My heart rate slowed down. My breathing steadied and I felt calm. Despite 45 minutes of jackhammer sounds echoing all around me I felt so relaxed I almost fell asleep! This Immanuel peace was exactly what I needed to quiet after the chaos.

When I returned from the MRI, Chris was waiting in my room. Everything moved slowly and calmly from there. The staff admitted me for the night and continued to run tests. Eventually we received the MRI results which showed no signs of a stroke. By the next morning my symptoms were completely resolved. The stroke team returned to my hospital room and shared their conclusions: “Well, we have no idea what happened to you!” They went on to say they ruled out a long list of concerns and by all appearances, I was the picture of good health.

I still do not know what caused the strange symptoms, but I am relieved to feel normal again. I am grateful for the prayers of many friends and family members while I was in the hospital. I feel thankful for Jesus’ profound peace in the midst of the chaos and the unknown. I am glad to have practiced the quieting skills as well as the interactions with Jesus that calmed my big emotions. Practicing these skills in the calm times made them available in the stressful, scary times.

It is much harder to learn to quiet or interact with Jesus for the first time in the midst of high stress and anxiety. I encourage you to start practicing these skills now when things are calm so they are available to you when you most need them. Take a look at the 19 skills here or read more about the skills in my husband’s new book, Transforming Fellowship here or on Kindle here.

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My Skills Saved The Day At The ER

As some of you heard, I recently endured an unexpected trip to the emergency room to rule out a stroke. Of course, what trip to the emergency room is really expected?

The boys and I enjoyed a fun day together. We started out with lunch followed by ice cream then some running around at a local bounce house that is useful for children to run off their limitless amounts of energy. This inside playground was especially helpful because it was rainy and wet outside.

During lunch I began to notice increasing numbness in my right finger. By the time we arrived at the bounce house the numbness and some tingling traveled up my right arm. Feeling concerned, I took some deep breaths to calm myself then I reviewed with my sons what to do in case of an emergency. I asked, “What is Daddy’s phone number?” then I calmly shared that if something strange happened and I was sick, strangers would try to help them. In this case, they should ask someone to call their father. Confused, they asked me why I was saying this. I assured them that probably nothing was going to happen to me, but, if something did happen they would be less afraid if they knew what to do. The boys nodded their heads in agreement and ran off to play again. At this point I called Chris and shared that I was feeling weird. He suggested I call our family doctor, who referred me to a walk-in clinic nearby.

I loaded the boys into my van and told them I needed to visit a doctor, but hopefully we would return to the bounce house for more fun. As expected, the boys were disappointed but I stayed grounded, kept the conversation light and calmed my fears so they would not become worried or anxious. We drove to the urgent care clinic and only later did I realize this was probably not a wise decision since I could have been having a stroke, but, at the time, no one even considered the possibility that I could be experiencing a stroke.

When I arrived at the urgent care they took me right in to see the doctor. The doctor tested me with the common stroke tests and felt it was unlikely I was having a stroke. However, she shared that the only way to rule out a stroke was to visit the hospital. When I asked if I could drive myself, the doctor gently laughed and said, “No, you need to go by an ambulance.” This response surprised me. After all, my 5 and 7 year-old boys were with me and my husband was over 35 minutes away. I asked if my sons could ride in the ambulance with me. The nurses were incredibly kind and they decided to call the ambulance service and ask about this. The office said this was not possible but a supervisor graciously offered to drive a second vehicle so my boys could follow the ambulance to the hospital. “Thank you Lord!” I whispered to myself. I sensed God’s provision.

I took a few deep breaths to make sure I was calm and peaceful, then I explained to Matthew and Andrew they were going on an adventure. I said, “Mommy is going to ride in an ambulance and you can follow me in another emergency vehicle!” They looked intrigued. At this point the boys helped the nurse find our van to retrieve booster seats and then the ambulance arrived. I was quickly loaded in then a flurry of tests were started as we drove off.

When we arrived at the hospital my husband was waiting to meet us. Matthew and Andrew jumped out and were all too eager to share about their exciting ride in the emergency vehicle. Their hands were filled with stickers and suckers the supervisor had given them. I was swiftly wheeled to the ER waiting room. Because the rooms were all filled, I was taken over to the admitting nurse so she could interview me about my condition. Chris and the boys waited in the lobby to see what would happen next. When I asked about the timeline, the nurse said it was likely I would be at the hospital for several hours. I encouraged Chris to take the boys to his parent’s house so they could get settled for the evening.

I am deeply grateful for the kind people who served me. I am relieved I could calm myself during the distressing situation so the boys would not feel afraid by the intensity of the circumstances. Because of these ingredients my sons thought the day was a fun adventure. If I would not have remained anchored during the storm because of the quieting skill, I believe this ordeal would have turned out much differently for all of us. Next week I will share more about my ER visit and how Immanuel met me during a stressful MRI test.

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