Latitudes is the on-line newsletter of the excellent Association for Comprehensive NeuroTherapy, a non-profit American organisation which explores non-drug based, often nutritional, approaches to treating anxiety, autism, attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, tics and Tourette syndrome, and learning disabilities.
The following article appeared in a recent newsletter.
My kids and I all suffer from anxiety. For the kids, it's infection-triggered; a disorder broadly called PANS (Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome). The infectious trigger can be strep, Lyme, mycoplasma, or any number of bacteria or viruses. PANS, like PANDAS, causes sudden episodes of intense anxiety, OCD, AD/HD, anger, emotional meltdowns, loss of fine motor skills like handwriting, brain fog and other "co-morbid" symptoms. It's a smorgasbord of neuropsych labels.
My own anxiety likely comes from genes that affect the way my body "methylates" or fails to produce enough serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters that influence moods. It also comes from raising two kids with PANS.
But regardless of the cause, I found myself living in a house in desperate need of tools to manage this alphabet soup of feelings and behaviors. ERP (exposure/ritual prevention) is the therapy designed specifically for obsessive compulsive anxiety. CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) is the therapy designed for general anxiety. Both are great tools for dealing with intense emotions.
When PANS hit my home, I was eager to find an ERP or CBT therapist so we could all get a grip. But while I could find a few therapists who claimed to be able to help teens and adults, none had worked with kids younger than 9. Great….I would just wait three years and then my oldest could start to get his life back. Not!
So instead, like any naturally anxious parent spinning out of control, I read books on childhood anxiety, I read websites, I joined online support groups and we did some good workbooks called "What to Do When You Worry Too Much" and "What to Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck" by Dawn Huebner. Each of these things helped. But I still had to work way, way too hard to modify adult concepts into messages young kids could grasp. I was sure I wasn't the first parent with this problem. Why was it so friggin' hard to find someone who could help little kids???
In a moment of exhaustion, I plopped onto the couch and started channel surfing. I had ten minutes before I would have to drag my sorry ass into the kitchen to start dinner. I surfed onto Oprah — a show I normally would've clicked past. But on the screen was a young boy who clearly had tics — something my son had struggled with. Hmm.., OK, I'll give this 30 seconds of my attention. Turns out the boy once suffered horrible rages and had at one time gotten so out of control he had threatened his mom with a kitchen knife. Wow, I thought, a family worse off than mine. This I had to watch.
This boy had gone on Oprah to tell people about the therapy that had helped him control his anger. I can't recall the name of the therapist or the name of the program this boy had used. But I burned the concept permanently into my brain. The idea was to think in colors. When the boy felt anger, he learned to think of calming colors, to flood his brain with no thoughts, only bright, healing, calming colors. The mom learned to stop anticipating and projecting her own fears and instead, flood her own brain with positive color.
So here was a cognitive behavior therapy in a package that was intuitive. It made so much sense. I decided to try it on my resident guinea pigs at bedtime that night. First up was my then 4 year old daughter.
The worry fairy
Right on time, the worry fairy showed up as we read the last page of a book and it was time to turn off the lights. Little arms wrapped a death grip around my neck.
"Momma, there's a gorilla in my closet." I was told.
"That's just the worry fairy playing a trick on you," I told her for the hundredth time. "She just wants your attention, so she's lying to you so you pay attention to her."
"No," I was firmly told. "There really is a gorilla in my closet."
Now, this conversation had happened many times before. Tonight, armed with Oprah wisdom, I decided to switch things up.
"Did you know that I just learned a new way to squash the fairy?" I asked. Tired eyes opened a little wider, staring at me with interest and skepticism. "Do you want to hear about it?" I asked. A tentative head nodded yes.
"Turns out," I explained, "that fairies hate bright colors. If you think of bright colors like yellow and pink and sky blue, the fairy HATES that and she flies away. Do you want to learn how to do it?" I had her full attention now.
We went through all the colors of the rainbow and assigned feelings to each one. Yellow was happy, blue was calm, rainbow color was for when you felt confused. With our new color dictionary, I decided to add in some deep breathing techniques (don't you just love parenting on the fly? If the kids only knew how much stuff we make up as we go along).
"Ok," I instructed, "Close your eyes and imagine you're dipping your toes into a bucket of yellow. Now pretend you're a straw." She giggled, despite the impending gorilla attack. "Suck the yellow up into your toes and legs. Now hold your breath so the yellow can soak in." I counted to three. "Now blow the black and brown stuff out."
She exhaled as I counted slowly to three. Then I told her to suck the yellow up further, into her tummy and arms and shoulders and finally into her head and hair. Each time, she had to slowly exhale. By the time she was covered in yellow, she was also relaxed. Even better, she believed she had beaten the fairy; believed that the fairy had gotten so ticked off by the happy colors that she had flown to the next county.
I would love to report that bedtime was a breeze after that. I would love to sell you this bridge I know about in Brooklyn — great views! But things did get easier. My daughter felt a little empowered. She grasped the idea that there were tools she could use to fight anxiety and be the boss of her own thoughts and her own responses.
I tried it out on my older son and he too intuitively embraced the concept much quicker than he had embraced traditional CBT and ERP techniques. We've also used it as a guide on who to hang out with — be with people who bring out your yellow. Steer clear of people who make you feel ugly or sad colors.
I've let a few of my own friendships fade and worked a little harder on others, guided by this wisdom.
As time went on and we continued to unravel medical mysteries and cope with daily "I hate this shit" moments that come with neuropsych issues, I made a conscious effort to suck in yellow and blow out the cold, steel gray of worry. For me, worry has got to be the ugliest color in the universe. Worse than puke green, worse than diarrhea brown. It is one of the loneliest colors I can think of. And every parent with an alphabet kid knows exactly what I mean.
So today, I send a little yellow your way. It won't cure your ills, but it might just make them a little easier to bear.
Courtesy of Latitudes
First published in October 2012
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