Protecting Yourself from Second-Hand Anxiety

Do you feel anxious when your child or teen is anxious?  Can you feel your own anxiety rising as your child retells an anxious event from their day?  In all likelihood, the answer is yes.  This phenomenon is called second-hand anxiety.  Second-hand anxiety simply means feeling anxious because someone else is anxious.  This happens because our brains are equipped with mirror neurons.  These neurons’ purpose is to imitate other’s movements and feelings. They help us learn just by watching someone complete a task.  They also allow us to feel what other people are feeling.  Studies have shown that observing someone expressing anger increases cortisol in the blood by 26%.  

It is important to protect yourself from second-hand anxiety because chronic stress can lead to long-term health problems.  In addition, as a parent, you are not helping your child if you are taking on their anxiety.  Here are a few tips to improve your emotional immunity and protect yourself from second-hand anxiety:


1).  Label your emotions.  Naming your emotions is a way to regulate them.  This also helps you to determine if you are feeling anxious about something in your own life or if you are feeling anxious out of empathy.  Once you have identified what you are feeling and why, you can make a plan.  


2).  Listen empathetically.  Listen with compassion and validate their feelings but let them own their own feelings.  Most of the time, people just want a listening ear, someone to say “that is really hard” or “I see you trying”.  They don’t need you to take on their feelings, in fact you shouldn’t because they can handle them.  Maintaining mental and emotional distance protects you from their anxiety.  


3).  Take a deep breath.  You are probably tired of hearing it by now, but breathing is the best way to reduce anxiety.  If you start to feel anxious, take a deep breath.  Regularly practicing mindfulness or meditation are great ways to protect against anxiety.


4).  Take some space.  In order for mirror neurons to work you either need to be watching someone or in the same space as them.  If you start to feel yourself taking on your child’s anxiety, it is okay to step away, calm yourself and then come back to it.  You are not helping your child if you are anxious, in fact, their own anxiety is probably increasing because their mirror neurons are picking up on your anxiety.  Take some time, breath, regroup and come back to help them.  Not only are you better able to help, but you are also modeling a great coping skill for them.  


The great news about mirror neurons is that they can be used to spread positive emotions too.  Taking good care of yourself spreads joy in your own home.  If you need assistance in setting appropriate boundaries to help your child or your child needs additional support, contact us here or call (217) -203-2008.  

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