Monday, May 21 , 2018, 6:06 pm | Mostly Cloudy 65º


Jonathan Lukas: Helping Your Child Face an Anxiety Disorder

The key to treatment is being aware of the signs, type and severity of the anxiety

Dealing with a moderate to severe anxiety disorder such as obsessive-compulsive disorder is not only a major challenge for the sufferer but also for the families who share in the struggle every day.

I often find in practice that parents of children and adolescents with OCD are themselves overwhelmed with what to do to help their children. There is a sense of fear and uncertainty that the parents feel every day because their child is so overwhelmed by a level of constant anxiety that takes so much of their happiness, peace of mind and emotional security away from them, leaving only a shell of the child they know and love. This does not have to be your life or their life anymore.

Unlike a physiological illness, OCD is all in the mind. It’s a brain disorder, but it’s also not fully understood as to where it comes from, why it attacks some people and not others, and why in some cases some people successfully manage their symptoms and others are so debilitated by them.

I know from my own history that OCD was a manifestation of an emotional wound that was left after kidney surgery at a very young age. I never dealt with the psychological challenges that came from spending a large chunk of my early days around severely ill children at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. Once my surgery was over and the physical damage to my kidney was repaired, I was sent home. The vivid memories of intrusive procedures, the look of anguish in my parents’ eyes and a “what if” feeling in the pit of my stomach came home with me.

Because of all of the school that I missed, I was held back another year only to see my old friends move on while I stayed behind. I believe a part of me, even though I was back to a “regular” life, stayed behind in the hospital as well. I just couldn’t shake the worries I was feeling because the memories were so fresh. Knowing how effective therapy could have been to deal with my noisy and often terrified mind might have reduced the likelihood of OCD’s ability to settle into and take over my life.

We just didn’t have the same options then as we do now. OCD was far less understood in the early 1980s, and exposure and response prevention for the treatment of OCD was not yet the standard, evidence-based treatment that it is today.

Now, parents have options including cognitive behavioral therapy and anti-depressant (SSRI) medications to help aid the therapeutic process, intensive outpatient treatment, and even intensive inpatient treatment. Parents need to know that anxiety is very treatable.

The key to the success of treating an anxiety disorder is to keep an eye on the signs of anxiety and, more specifically, the type and severity of anxiety. Anxiety over an upcoming exam in math class is normal and actually helpful to a certain level. Anxiety over that same math test that leads to loss of sleep, loss of appetite, ritualistic behaviors before that exam, isolating from friends and family, and the constant checking and reassurance seeking on the part of the child are all possible signs that the anxiety is more likely an anxiety disorder. These are all clues that therapeutic intervention is necessary.

As parents, we know when our children are suffering. It might come in the form of irritability, avoidance, self-harming behaviors such as hair pulling, skin picking, excessive nail biting, repeatedly asking questions about their own well-being, excessive focus on cleanliness/germs, and the list goes on and on. You are the experts in knowing when your child is happy and when he or she is struggling. Use this sixth sense to ask questions, to help your children know that it is OK to share thoughts and feelings even if the thoughts feel scary, embarrassing or intrusive. Let them know that even you, their greatest heroes, have intrusive and frightening thoughts, and that it’s OK to talk about them. The more we keep these thoughts hidden and stifled, the more real they feel.

If they still feel like they are unable to express their tormenting thoughts, remind them there are people out there who know what they are going through and can help them experience a life in which intrusive thoughts and impulses can be interpreted in new ways that no longer have to keep them in a state of panic and uncertainty.

With new tools and greater insight, your child can face unwanted thoughts in new ways that can get him or her back to living more in the present and less in the past or future. From my own experience, I have learned that getting stuck in the future with my thoughts generally leads to anxiety. Getting stuck in the past often leads to feelings of depression and regret and loss of self-esteem.

Whether your child, your parents, your siblings or even you are finding that anxiety is stealing your happiness and your ability to function in life, I encourage you to step up to the challenge of learning how to effectively face your anxiety. Understanding that we all get overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts is half the battle. Learning how to effectively reinterpret intrusive thoughts for what they are (completely harmless) will open up a new world to you and your loved ones.

Jonathan Lukas MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy. He is in private practice and runs The OCD Treatment Center of Santa Barbara, working with adolescents and adults with anxiety disorders. Click here for more information or call 805.453.2347.

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