Anxiety Can Be Contagious

It’s 7:22 a.m., and your children have to be on the bus in 8 minutes. Your youngest daughter cannot find her favorite socks, and the backpack you watched her pack and put by the door last night is open and on the table, papers and folders askew. Your oldest son slept through his alarm, and is just now getting out of the shower. Your spouse needs to leave for work, and you can’t be late because of a big meeting early in the day. Neither child has eaten, nor have the pets been fed and watered. And your car is low on gas.

“Hurry up, kids,” you state loudly (not yet yelling, but close). You can feel your heart beating and the tension in your chest. You think about your boss’s face when you get to work late. You start to get a cold sweat on your upper lip. Your thoughts start to cycle rapidly. It feels almost unbearable.

“Why?” your youngest asks rather cheekily. “I’m not ready to hurry.” Your older child is not arguing, but clearly not hurrying.

Your next response is what? Anger, yelling, crying, or pulling out your hair? Pounding your head against the wall? Worry, dread, and panic? For many people in similar situations, these responses are common.

Is Anxiety Contagious?
Is Anxiety Contagious?

If you have ever found yourself stressed and overwhelmed in a similar parenting situation, try and recall that situation. Now imagine responding differently in that moment. Imagine identifying your feelings before they were overwhelming and anger-inducing. And imagine a different scenario with a more positive outcome for you and your child.

Picture yourself taking a long, deep breath. And then another. And another. Picture yourself allowing the tension to leave your body, and your thoughts are cleared. Picture your heart rate and breathing slowing down. Picture a quiet, kind, and generous reply to your child. Picture yourself as the parent you would like to be. Picture getting through the situation as best you can with kindness and patience, even if it is not perfect. Picture a compassionate response for yourself, given how difficult it has been for you.

Now try to imagine using this approach for future stressful situations

Why is this important?

Anxiety is indeed contagious

Your responses set the stage for how your child feels, and learns to interact with her world.

Christopher McCurry (2009) likened the contagion of anxiety to the sympathetic reaction of a tuning fork. When you strike one tuning fork, and another is close by, the second tuning fork begins to also vibrate and make sound. Similarly, one anxious person in a family who is consumed with stress or worry will result in other family members having similar stress reactions.

So what can you do?

If you are in a stressful situation with your children, do NOT ignore the powerful learning opportunity before you.

Use this moment to teach your children how you feel. Teach them about where anxiety surfaces for you in your thoughts and body.

Teach them calmly about your own triggers, and model how to respond in healthy ways.

Have a plan (even if it is just in your mind) for how you can respond to additional stressful situations.

Role-play difficult situations with your children when they aren’t stressful. By doing this, all of you get practice handling difficult times well.

Use a mindfulness practice daily

If you don’t use one, start. It can be as simple as 10 deep breaths daily. Research continues to support the many benefits of mindfulness on our health, mood, and relationships. Most importantly, mindfulness improves our ability to pause and reflect at difficult times rather than urgently respond to strong feelings.

Practice self-compassion daily. Practice sending thoughts of kindness to yourself. When we are kind to ourselves, we are much better at responding in kind and patient ways to others too. Teach your children to do this too.

Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy

Enjoy the time with your children. Soak in the beautiful moments, and find meaning in the hard ones. Our children are one of our greatest blessings. And we are one of their greatest blessings too.


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