A photo of Lynn Gerwig Lyons

Understanding Anxiety

Psychotherapist Lynn Gerwig Lyons ’87 has been in private practice for 28 years, specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders in children and families. An author and public speaker, she discusses with her audiences the subject of anxiety, its role in families and the need for a preventive approach.

Lyons says that in her practice, she focuses more on how a worry manifests than “the content of the worry.” Meaning, it doesn’t matter if a child is scared of clowns or of being separated from their parents. What matters is: “Does the child ruminate or catastrophize? Where did he learn to do that?” she says. “From there, we can get to work.”

But unlike most worries that crop up, the coronavirus is real and immediate. “Our approach to the anxiety is the same, but the content of the worry—in this case—is real and we need to discuss it,” Lyons says.

Lyons explained in a phone interview how she is helping children and families cope with their anxiety around coronavirus.

Has there been an uptick in anxiety among your patients in recent weeks?
I’ve noticed that my more seasoned patients are doing better than I’d expected. The families I work with aren’t rookies; they know not to catastrophize. They know that rumination is not going to help. They know to give room for their kids to worry. They’ve heard me say so many times It’s normal to worry, of course you’re going to have those feelings. They have a vocabulary for all this, and so they’re not going off the rails.

When you say your patients know not to catastrophize, what do you mean?
A catastrophic thinker goes to the worst-case scenario of any situation. So with this virus, we can worry and worry and worry: What if someone I know gets diagnosed? What if school doesn’t go back? We can worry about all of these what ifs and imagine how they play out, but worrying about something doesn’t actually help a person cope with it later, if that thing comes to pass. Instead, I ask my patients: Where can we take action? We can self-isolate to help slow the spread, wash our hands and avoid touching our faces. Those are concrete things we can do. Learning how to act when they can, and how to tolerate uncertainty when they can’t—without catastrophizing or ruminating—are some of the most important skills I can give my patients.

How can a person learn a skill like tolerating uncertainty?
A pattern that shows up in anxious families is reassurance seeking. There’s a lot of questioning, researching, gathering information—and parents get sucked into that and model it for their children. I want parents and children both to learn to differentiate between the things that we need to know and can know and the things we can’t know. If your kid says: Mom how long do you think it’s going to be before we go back to school? What do you think is going to happen?, and you’re a parent who wants to create certainty, you will try to provide a lot of answers and information. But when we’re in a time of uncertainty, the answer we must provide is: It’s so hard not to know. I don’t know, isn’t that hard? It’s done with compassion and support, but we acknowledge that it’s sometimes accurate to not know and still be OK as we move forward.

—Julia Munemo