Summer is a tricky time. It is a season of hiatus, but also a girding for something new around the corner, a perpetual present that carries the anticipation of what’s to come. For those high school graduates who are entering their first year of college, the future carries with it an even heavier weight of the unknown.
Only a couple of weeks from now my teenage daughter, my eldest, will be leaving home for college. It seems that just yesterday she was in her white dress posing for pictures and graduating high school; then, before she had a chance to regroup, she was being asked to lay down the first bricks of her future. Making choices, academic and otherwise, that require her to know things she can’t possibly yet know. She’s embarking on perhaps the biggest transition we experience in our lives: going from the shelter and structure of home to the openness of college; living a life where she was given the walls, floor, and ceiling of what is possible and then one day, being handed the blueprint to design herself.
But she can’t yet visualize what this will be. Here, her friends have faces, voices, laughs she knows, memories and associations she can call up immediately. The future comes up as a blank. This is throwing off her balance, making her feel unmoored. She knows what she’s losing, yet she cannot know what will replace it. The gain is the mystery, a cause for excitement and anticipation, but also a source of anxiety.
As her mother, and a psychologist who specializes in anxiety, I remind her how anxiety alerts us to pay attention to things that matter. Even if it feels uncomfortable, her anxiety is signaling that she cares. She doesn’t yet know what we all tend to learn through successfully navigating enough of life: It will be okay. And she needs us to help bolster her confidence, the ballast we all need to face the unknown.
In my book Hack Your Anxiety: How to Make Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love, and All that You Do, I explore and explain about how anxiety doesn’t need to be an obstacle to our best selves; it can become the tools and energy we use to achieve that best self. Anxiety can present us with an opportunity to thrive.
The book ends by offering steps to help the reader channel his or her anxiety. These steps are a way to embrace and use anxiety, including the feelings that are bound to come when change arrives.
1. Recognizing Anxiety
In the book I classify three main types of anxiety, all of which can show up during transition times: Chatter, Yelling, and Whisper. The logistical anxieties my daughter feels—making sure she accomplishes what is needed before she leaves—presents as chatter anxiety.This running, low-grade anxiety keeps her on top of things and can be channeled toward productive action.
As the intensity, and fear, builds, my daughter is vulnerable to moments of louder anxiety (Yelling)where it sweeps up and escalates other emotions. This can look like heightened sensitivity, when communication can be immediate and direct (“Mom, I need _____!”) and emotions can run high.
The sadness of saying goodbye, buried low at the moment, is the whisper; it doesn’t take center stage, not yet, but throughout the summer it’s been hidden, affecting and influencing my daughter’s feelings about saying the inevitable goodbye.
2. Identifying Anxiety
How we name emotions defines how we feelthem. Viewing anxiety as a positive force can make it so. In times of change, it helps to be careful in our language. We are encouraging our daughter to identify that she is excited and hopeful about the future.
3. Sorting Anxiety
Separating irrational from rational anxieties is critical to using one’s anxiety effectively. The irrational fears are always some version of: I cannot handle this. My job as a parent is to alert her that she can, to help her look behind her and see that she already has.
The rational fears are about being prepared. They also have to do with finding and creating friendships, the challenges of new classes, and coping with her inevitable homesickness.
4. Determining Action
My daughter can make sure that when she gets to school, she is mentally there and not spending too much time communicating with friends back home, a temptation that is ubiquity of technology has made harder to resist. Figuring out how to remain open to new connections is a key part of planning for success.
5. Taking Action
In preparing to leave, there will be much to do, and staying in motion will allow a needed outlet for my daughter’s anxiety.
When she gets to school, there will be many more opportunities to channel the focus and energy of her anxiety too. She will make friends just like she always has by being a friend. She will maintain her academic confidence by staying engaged in the classroom and taking control of her learning. She will learn to be away from home by making a home for herself at school.
During this time or excitement and adjustment, anxiety will be there every step of the way, nudging my daughter toward growth and being her best self. It is a skilled partner, there to help if she is open and willing to use it to her benefit. It takes practice and trust, to reframe our understanding of anxiety. It is not working against us. It is, in fact, a tool and resource, something we can open up to in order to make a time of change a successful transition.
Worried about your kid too? Check out my new book, Hack Your Anxiety and sign-up for free book bonuses including my mini e-course to help you understand how anxiety impacts your life and best ways out of it.