Changing Colors: The Blog of Spectrum Pediatrics

March 21, 2017

Mealtime Stress: Why Can’t I Stop Worrying? How Do I Make it Stop?

By: Heidi Moreland, MS, CCC-SLP, BRS-S, CLC

Worries and anxious thoughts can sneak in like smoke under a door, coloring everything in the room. They can be disruptive to relationships and experiences, but also SO difficult to stop. Even in the middle of worrying, we have a sneaking suspicion that the anxiety isn’t healthy. The problem is that worry can also feel protective. That it means you are a good parent, a conscientious person and that you care. If you want to stop worrying, you need to give up the belief that worry is productive and that it serves a positive purpose.

Telling yourself to stop doesn’t work. Most of us have tried it, but it can even make the anxiety stronger because now you are focusing even more energy on those thoughts! Here are a few tips from HelpGuide.org, which is a mental health website that is affiliated with Harvard Health Publications.* We have found these tips to be incredibly helpful in our own lives and in working with families of children who struggle with eating.

1. Learn to postpone worrying. Write down thoughts as they occur to you, remind yourself to think about it later. It will break up the constant worry, and allow you to begin control your thoughts rather than allowing them to control you.

  • For current concerns, you can allow yourself a period of time every day to think about them, but limit the thoughts to that window of time. Set a timer if you have to!
  • For concerns about the future, you need to recognize the limitations of fretting in the present about a future problem.

2. Ask if the problem is solvable.

  • If it is, start a plan and take action. Ask the doctor specific questions or start a treatment process to address your feeding concerns.
  • If it is too far in the future to start a plan, write it down to worry about later. Logistical problems for the first day of Kindergarten can’t be resolved while your child is only 6 months old.
  • If it isn’t, accept the underlying emotions, such as fear or anger that lurk beneath the worry. For example, “if my child fails, everyone will believe that I am a bad mother.” Accept those emotions as part of being human and being a parent. Because worrying also protects you from feeling those emotions, embracing the emotion can help you create a better balance between your intellect and your emotions.

3. Challenge the anxious thoughts. Are you making the world or the situation more dangerous than it really is? The way in which you view a situation discredits you and your child’s ability to handle life’s problems and assumes that neither of you will be able to rise to the occasion and conquer new situations. These thoughts are called cognitive distortions, and can actually result in shielding you or your child from an opportunity to learn and mature. Take a look at your thought patterns to see if any of these seem familiar:

  • All-or-nothing thinking – looking at things in black or white categories, with no gray middle ground. “If my child isn’t eating all healthy foods in a meal, he is eating nothing.
  • Overgeneralization – generalizing from a single negative experience. He only ate two bites at breakfast, he doesn’t ever eat enough.
  • The mental filter – focusing only the negatives. Our parents often report their concern when their child didn’t eat their brussel sprouts, forgetting that he tasted them, which he has never done, AND he ate a bigger lunch than he has ever eaten before!
  • Diminishing the positive – Coming up with reasons that the positive doesn’t count. Yes, he ate a whole serving of ice cream, which is the most he has ever eaten, but it’s ice cream, not broccoli. Plus, he ate ice cream last year at the beach.
  • Jumping to conclusions – Making negative assumptions without the facts. The doctor didn’t call me back in an hour, I’m sure there is something seriously wrong with the tests.
  • Catastrophizing- Expecting the worst-case scenario to happen. This is especially difficult for families when there has been traumatic illness and difficult things did happen.
  • Emotional reasoning – Believing that your emotions reflect reality. “I am really scared about the doctor’s phone call. That must mean that he has bad news.”
  • Should’s and should not’s – making a list of what you should and shouldn’t do, and being upset with yourself if you break the list. For many of our parents, that can reflect some of the beliefs you made on how you were going to parent. “I wasn’t going to allow my child to have any sugar.” That can make it difficult to feel successful if one of your child’s first desired foods is flavored yogurt.
  • Labeling – Labeling yourself completely on your mistakes or on your shortcomings. “I can’t do this myself, I am a failure.”
  • Personalization – Assuming responsibility for things outside of your control. “I should have stopped the doctors, or asked more questions about the feeding tube before they put it in.” Realize that you made the best decision you could at the time, based on the facts that you had, and move forward.

4. Accept uncertainty – Worrying can feel like you are predicting the future, which will allow you to prevent any unpleasant surprises and control all the outcomes. Too bad that doesn’t actually work! Thinking about things endlessly doesn’t stop them from happening. At the very least, it can ruin the present. In some situations, especially with children and eating, it can actually cause the problem you are so worried about avoiding!

5. Be aware of how others affect you – Anxiety is incredibly catching and sneaky. In fact, we make sure that each staff member has another clinician to consult with during treatment. It helps to have someone who is not in the situation to de-escalate anxious thoughts and ground decisions in reality. Choose the people that you discuss your child’s eating with carefully.

6. Practice mindfulness – Acknowledge your thoughts, instead of trying to push them away. Don’t try to control them, hang on to them or analyze them endlessly. Engaging in those thoughts is what leads to being stuck in that cycle. Stay focused in the present.

Dealing with anxiety takes practice, so don’t be discouraged if your thought patterns don’t change overnight. Some people need help with changing these thought patterns so they don’t become more destructive. Next week, we will talk about the signs and symptoms of Traumatic Stress, and when to seek professional counseling.

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