Building Reminder Bridges
A month ago I bought a new pair of hiking boots. My old boots lasted a decade, and I loved them. But they fell apart this fall, and I said a sad goodbye.
Having comfortable boots is a big deal for hikers, so I was nervous about the purchase.
My new boots felt good when I wore them in the store, but the first time out, the arch felt a bit high and intrusive. I focused on this sensation as I hiked. I talked about it to my husband. I began to panic a bit inside. Then, miraculously, my foot somehow adjusted. It eased into the arch of the boot, and I relaxed into my purchase.
This past weekend, I put the boots on again to take a walk in the woods. And the arch in the right foot felt uncomfortably high.
I walked around the house, testing them out. I expressed my concern to my husband, who commented that the conversation sounded very familiar. I left for my walk, concerned about the fit, maybe even a bit obsessed.
And about two miles in, my foot made peace with the arch in the boot. It felt great. Again.
“Just like the last time,” my husband said when I came home and happily reported the outcome.
I am toying with the idea of putting a note to myself in my boot, reminding me of this process. I think I’ll remember they fit well, but I’m not convinced.
Why? Because worry makes you forget.
More specifically, worry makes you forget when things worked out okay.
When a similar situation arises again, the ending of the story (the success) is far overshadowed by the beginning (the worry)—much to the frustration of those trying to help a worried child.
Past successes in the face of anxiety seem to disappear from our minds and memories.
The child terrified to go the party on his own ends up going, has a great time, but then worries with the same intensity when the next invitation arrives.
The teen with a school assignment due next week freaks out, convinced she won’t be able to get it done despite the fact that she does well academically and has completed countless assignments in the past.
This is typical of worry. So, what do we do?
Confront this anxiety-driven amnesia by understanding worry’s tricks. Expect it to show up, and prepare reminder bridges ahead of time.
Reminder bridges help children connect to past successes, specifically times when they felt anxious but moved ahead and handled the worry.
Because successes are so quickly cast aside by worry’s catastrophic predictions, an ongoing practice to develop the skill of connecting to what you did to manage worry is key.
I’m a big fan of process over content, meaning that I teach families HOW worry works and what to do about worry, rather than focusing too narrowly on WHAT the worry is or WHY that particular worry has shown up.
Spending time and energy trying to understand, explain, or rationalize WHAT the worry is worrying about keeps families in the content trap.
If stuck in the content trap, parents will instinctively talk themselves blue in the face giving rational explanations and evidence when the same worry shows up again or just moves onto a new topic.
“But you had so much FUN at the last party!”
“You have a 95 in chemistry!”
“When was the last time you couldn’t get a project done?”
“It will be fine just like last time. Don’t you remember?”
What needs to happen instead is a reminder of HOW worry works.
“Yup, this is what your worry does. Makes you forget your successes.”
“Worry is great at getting you to think the worst.”
“Oh, so predictable! Worry wants you to STOP. Can you pull up your reminder bridges?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, worry, I know you want us to forget successes, but we’re not playing that game.”
A reminder bridge is a connection to a previous success, and it is built PRIOR to worry arriving. As predictable as worry can be, so must be the responses.
This is what practice sounds like:
“Worry gets stronger when we forget how you handled it last time. Let’s build some reminder bridges in your brain.”
“Let’s talk about HOW you were successful the last time your worry showed up. You were uncomfortable and uncertain, but you moved through it. That success counts.”
“We wrote down your successes right here to help you remember them.”
Attempting to talk someone out of the worry in the middle of the worry often goes nowhere, but laying the groundwork, creating those neural pathways through repetition, and being ready to pull up reminder bridges when needed moves thinking patterns out of avoiding and toward doing.
Preparing your child with skills to handle worry, rather than preparing (and over preparing) your lives to prevent the arrival of your child’s worry is what resilience and flexibility and emotional management are all about for a more adventurous hike ahead.