Parenting

Have A Family Member With Anxiety? Come Up With A Safe Word

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I published a post on my blog about how I was a ball of anxiety all of Christmas Day. There really wasn’t a trigger, necessary. I woke up anxious, and it sat in my gut as I watched my wife and three children open their gifts, smiling, laughing, enjoying one of the best days of the year.

To be honest, I knew it was coming. My wife had been in the hospital the month before, and during that three weeks it was go go go. I didn’t have time to feel anxious or process what I was experiencing. Usually those feelings come later, once things have settled, but I suppose I hoped they would happen before or after Christmas, not during.

But no.

So I forced myself to smile because I didn’t want to ruin it for my family. I didn’t want to make it about me, so I opened my gifts and played normal, but the whole time, I felt apart from myself, deep in my anxiety, giving it everything I could to be strong for my children.

As it turns out, a lot of people struggle with anxiety over the holidays. I received a lot of messages from that blog post, but one message in particular really stood out. It was from a mother thanking me for the post. She mentioned that it helped her understand her daughter who also struggles with anxiety, and it caused them to develop a “safe” word that she can text her mother when she needs to remove herself from a situation.

Now, as a man who has struggled with anxiety for decades, I’m left wondering why I never thought of this before. I know a lot of parents tell their teens to text them an “X” if they ever need an out for a bad social situation, but I’d never once thought about doing it for my anxiety.

I have spent so much of my life trying to fight through the anxiety, to put on a happy face and pretend everything is okay when it’s not. I’ve always felt socially expected to continue because I don’t want to openly say that I’m anxious. Instead, I just lie and say “I’m tired” or “I have a lot of my mind” because it’s easier than trying to explain my anxiety, which honestly isn’t easy to explain, and often ripe for judgment. Particularly on a holiday, when it would be so easy for someone to say, “It’s Christmas. Why would you be anxious?”

But having a safe word, something I could text my wife, something that’s simple and would explain why I had to step outside for a while — or maybe go in another room and be alone, or take a walk around the block, or indicate that I need to leave a little early from a party — is such a simple solution. It would allow me to duck out without having some whispered awkward moment in another room or confusion on my wife’s part about why I just disappeared. It would make me feel more in control of my anxiety, because it would free me up to use some of those mental health management tactics I’ve spent years learning in therapy.

Naturally, this extends far beyond just social situations. And I know, with COVID restrictions, there aren’t a lot of social situations to step out of right now. But there will be soon enough, I’m sure.

So, my friends, if you have a family member who struggles with anxiety (spouse or child) I highly recommend you establish something similar with them. I have a feeling they will appreciate it more than you know. It will give them the flexibility they need to exit a situation when they are anxious, do what they need to do to re-center, and return with a clearer and calmer mind.

But most importantly, it will tell that person you love with anxiety that you understand their mental health struggles, and that you are here to support them when they need it — no questions asked. And as someone who has struggled with mental illness most of his life, let me tell you, that is hands down one of the best gifts I could imagine.