I recently attended a webinar on helping kids manage anxiety by Renee Jain of GoZen.
One thing that struck me was when Renee talked about how people in an anxious situation start telling a story.
“I’m going to fail this test, and then I’ll get an F in this class and never get into a good college. I’ll be a loser living in my parents’ basement forever.”
“I’m going to lose my job, and my wife will leave me and I’ll live in a crappy apartment and never see my kids.”
We are neurologically wired to be storytellers; it’s how we make sense of the world. Stories allow us to interpret our past and connect what is happening in our lives right now with where we’re going in the future. The nature of the stories we tell, receive, and make part of the canon of the human experience have a profound impact on us, for better or for worse.
Changing the story can change our understanding of events. We can’t, of course, change the past, but changing the way we understand the past can be a powerful agent for changing the course of the future.
A study by Jeremy Jamieson, Mind Over Matter, described his observation that before a football game, players would describe themselves as “amped up,” ready to take on their opponents, and prepared to dominate. But before a test, those football players would lament that they were going to “choke” and fail the test.
Jamieson hypothesized that in both scenarios, they were undergoing the same stress response, but the story they told about their stress response was different. When experiencing stress about an upcoming game, the narrative was one of their superiority and ability to come out of top. The stress of a test, however, elicited a story about failure and humiliation.
In his research, Jamieson studied a group of students taking a GRE prep class. One group (the Stress As Enhancing group) was given a pep talk about how stress was helping them prepare to take the test well and be successful. The other group (the Focus If You’re Stressed group) was simply told, “If you feel stressed, just focus.” No other intervention or difference existed between the two groups.
The Stress As Enhancing group not only did better on the practice test, they did better on the actual GRE months later.
Anxious kids (and adults) can manage and channel their anxiety by learning to change their “story,” the interior monologue they create about the events surrounding their anxiety.
Our stories matter. Our stories are how make sense of our experiences.
Stories can help us manage anxiety, but they are also the way we manage our reaction to life events. The stories we tell are influenced, far more than we are consciously aware, by the stories we consume.
This is why I can’t get on the as-long-as-kids-are-reading-I’m-not-concerned-with-what-they’re-reading bandwagon.
I don’t like the Lemony Snicket series because I think it focuses excessively on the relentless nature of evil, without depicting the victory of redemption. On the other hand, The Mysterious Benedict Society strikes the delicate balance of portraying evil as a terrifying, intelligent, and personal reality, but still manages to show the triumph of good over evil.
Romance, friendship, scary situations, temptation, danger, and achievement all make up the human experience. When we send children and teens out to face them, it makes sense to best equip them by forming them with stories that reflect the stories we hope they tell.
Next time: What happens when we lose our story?
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