I'm here today with Andrea Petersen. Andrea’s a contributing writer at The Wall Street Journal and the author of the book On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and her nine-year-old daughter.
Welcome to Andrea.
Andrea Petersen: Thanks for having me.
Zibby: You share in your book that you've spent your life since sophomore year in college coping with a serious anxiety disorder involving panic attacks and some other debilitating symptoms which I really want to talk about. I also really want to talk about your recent Wall Street Journal article, “The Overprotected American Child,” which outlines how to prevent anxiety from forming in children, assuming genetics don't doom them from the outset -- I don't know about the outset, but their parents. Let's start with the article, if that's okay.
You begin by sharing your experience when you left your daughter at home for a few minutes for the first time and how you both felt “a bit rattled” by the whole thing afterwards. Can you tell me more about that situation and how your feelings afterwards made you think about parenting in order to prevent anxiety?
Andrea: I've done so much research on anxiety and particularly how anxiety develops in kids. I've looked into how much parenting can or cannot contribute to anxiety. The good news is that most researchers don't believe that parenting necessarily makes kids anxious.
Zibby: Phew! You can go home now.
Andrea: If you have an anxious kid or a kid who’s predisposed to anxiety, what you do does really matter. This is true for all kids. The one parenting dimension that seems to carry the most weight and maybe do the most harm when it comes to making kids anxious is not giving them enough autonomy. We’ve all read a lot of hand-wringing stories and essays lamenting the fact that kids today don't have nearly as much physical independence and autonomy -- I'm a Gen Xer -- as I did, as certainly generations before us did. I don't know about you, but I remember long, especially summer days, playing tag, riding my bike with a gang of other kids, no parents in sight. That is certainly not the way my daughter is growing up.
I've been thinking for months, “I really need to start giving her a little bit more independence and autonomy.” I know that is one of the things that I can do to not only try to prevent anxiety -- I've talked to psychologists who say they’ve got kids who are off at college whose parents still call them every morning to wake them up because they’ve never learned to wake up on their own, kids who don't know how to do their laundry. As parents, because we’re so focused on the homework and the extracurricular activities, they're so scheduled and busy that we forget to teach them a lot of the basic life skills that they're going to need when they're on their own. This is something that I've been thinking about for a while. Of course I didn't actually do it until I had to.
What happened is my daughter was really sick. My husband was out of town. I needed to go get her Pedialyte because she couldn't keep anything down. I calculated the time. The drugstore was about a five-minute walk away. I'm like, “It’ll take me about ten minutes. I can probably do the whole thing in twenty minutes.” I showed her where the landline was -- I don't even think she knew where it was because we don't ever use it -- so she could call me. She knew my cell phone number, but I quizzed her on it to make sure that it was top-of-mind, told her not to open the door for anyone. Then I left.
Zibby: You put her in front of the TV, or you did not?
Andrea: No, I didn't. She's a big reader. She's super into Harry Potter now. She was enrapt in one of those books. It’s funny. I got in line at the store. My phone rang. It was FaceTime. She said, “Mama, the landline didn't work.” I don't know if something was wrong with it, but it didn't work. She was intrepid enough to figure out how to call me on my iPad and FaceTime me that way. She was a little nervous, so she FaceTimed me. We chatted for a bit. I got home. We both emerged unscathed from the whole ordeal until I told my husband that night what I had done. He was not so thrilled about it. He was like, “She could've choked on something or bumped her head.” To be fair to him, those things have actually happened, of course when we were home with her. Sometimes even if you want to encourage independence and autonomy to your kids, if your spouse isn't on board with it, that can be tough, or especially if your neighborhood isn't. I've talked to several parents who wanted to have their kids walk to school at eight or nine and really came under fire from other parents who thought that was a nutty idea.
Zibby: Everybody does it a little differently. You mentioned also in your article that overzealous parenting can do real harm, which is what you're talking about now with anti-autonomy, and that doctors cite this as a contributing factor in the increase of the prevalence of anxiety disorders among kids. Can the parenting cause it or is it just what you saying, more on the fringes it can lead to a flare-up of it?
Andrea: I don't think anyone's totally parsed it out. What I've heard from everyone from college counseling center directors who are seeing huge explosions -- the statistics are, especially among young adults, college students, are alarming. The latest research shows that about twenty-two percent of college students in 2017 said that they had been treated for or diagnosed with anxiety problems within the last year. That's up from ten percent in 2008. There's clearly something going on. Definitely it’s being fueled partly by the fact that there's more awareness around having mental health issues. There's less stigma, which is a good thing. There's clearly something going on. The psychologists and educators do point to overzealous parenting as one contributing factor. If you think about it, it makes sense. When you are overprotective or don't give kids age-appropriate autonomy, the message that you're sending to them is that the world’s a dangerous place and that they can't cope with situations on their own. You're also not giving them the chance to develop the skills that they're going to need. Ideally, we all want our kids to be independent and be able to live on their own.
Zibby: Yes. That would be nice.
Andrea: When they graduate from high school or go to college or go to the workforce, we want them to be able to have those skills that they're going to need to live independently.
Zibby: What are the tips? You had said in your article getting your kids to do household chores is really helpful, things like the laundry and the dishes. What else should you be having your kids do to be more autonomous?
Andrea: That was actually really eye-opening for me. When I initially approached the story I was thinking, “I know that I want to give my daughter more independence.” For our parent’s generation, that's what everyone did. They went with their gut or they went with whatever the prevailing cultural tide was. Things are so different now. People are so much more anxious about giving their kids more -- whether it’s because we all hear about the child abduction that may have happened across the country. Statistically, kids are much safer than they were when Gen-Xers were kids. Even so, we hear more about the scary things that can happen.
I wanted to find out what does the research say? If I do want to give my daughter independence and autonomy, what age is the right age to let her walk to school by herself or stay home alone or whatever? I didn't really find a lot of hard/fast rules. What was really interesting to me is talking to psychologists, they were saying, “You really need to think about independence and autonomy not so much in the context of these big, riskier independence moves but more as a continuum starting when they're really small.” Things that we would think of as chores or duties like having your two-year-old put their dirty clothes in the hamper, pick up their toys, or having your six-year-old make a sandwich, not with a sharp knife, with a dull knife, or your eight-year-old makes some scrambled eggs on a stove, those may sound just like chores but in fact those are moves towards independence. They are skills that they're going to need to have to live self-sufficiently and that give them a feeling of self-efficacy, that they can do it. That is a really important skill to have.
Also, another tip that was really interesting was to involve the kids in decision-making around their moves towards independence and autonomy, asking your child, “Do you think you're ready to stay home alone? What are the pros and cons of that?” Actually having that discussion with them, you're helping to really encourage their decision-making skills and to help them feel confident that they can work through these kind of things. That is a really important skill to have. You're also conveying that you trust them to help problem solve. They're learning problem-solving skills. They're learning to trust their own thinking. If you think about that, that's going to be really important especially during the teen years when they're facing bigger decisions about sex and alcohol and scary things like that. Those are things that you can really help develop that good decision-making from these smaller independence moves.
Zibby: I love these tips especially because you can do them at home. It’s not like I have to go let my kids start wandering around the street. It’s everyday things, many of which the kids do, but just to make it to be so mindful of it and make sure that they know why they're doing it too, that it’s beneficial for them.
Andrea: Right. “You're going to need to know how to do this because at some point you're going to live on your own. I'm not going to be here to do your laundry,” or things like that.
Zibby: I just visited a girlfriend of mine recently who lives outside of Austin. She has four kids. She was showing us the laundry room. She was like, “The kids do all their own laundry.” She has some little kids. I was like, “Really?” She was like, “Oh, yeah. Maybe a big load, if there's something I have to do, I’ll do it.” When the kids are like, “My socks are dirty,” or “I need this clean for soccer,” she's like, “That's where it is.”
Andrea: That's great.
Zibby: I do not do that.
Andrea: I have not done that yet. I, until recently, was making my daughter her breakfast. I have one child too. The more kids you have, probably you don't have as much time.
Zibby: I was like, “Short-order cook in the [indiscernible-laughter].” I have three lunchboxes open for camp and making eggs. I can't keep this up much longer.
Andrea: Also, talking to another psychologist was really eye-opening too. Things I hadn’t really thought of as independence moves but of course they are -- basically she was saying you have to keep remembering that the goal is to have a self-sufficient person by they time they leave your roof. Things like advocating for themselves with teachers, that’s a really important skill so in college they’ll be able to develop relationships with mentors. They’ll be able to negotiate. If they bomb a test, that they know they can go in to a professor and figure out what they need to do to get a better grade on the next one so that they're not failing out before they address it or going to the doctor by themselves and being able to talk about their own symptoms. One psychologist was telling me, she's had kids end up with pneumonia because they were too overwhelmed to go and make their own doctor’s appointment.
Zibby: Wow. I can't imagine my kids picking up the phone and making all their own doctor’s appointments, at this age at least. It’s nice to know that'll come. It’ll take a little bit off my plate. Let's switch gears a little bit to the book, which is so good.
You talk in your book about how you approached the treatment to your own anxiety. I loved your description of when you had acupuncture and all the alternative treatments. I personally have never felt as anxious as being left alone in a dark room with needles all over me. Your description was hilarious. I love that.
Andrea: There's actually something called relaxation-induced anxiety.
Zibby: Totally. I have the hardest time relaxing. Yoga, all those things you're supposed to do --
Andrea: -- I've had panic attacks in the middle of massages.
Zibby: Oh, good. I feel better.
Andrea: When my anxiety is really, really amped up, the act of trying to relax and focusing on my body can actually cause a resurgence in symptoms. There is evidence that acupuncture can be very helpful. It can be for some people. Yoga’s one of the ways that helps keep my anxiety in check when it’s at its lower, typical low hum. When it’s super amped up, there's other things I've got to do.
Zibby: Interesting. What are some of the things that you do when you're really amped up?
Andrea: When my anxiety is disabling, when it’s really preventing me from --
Zibby: -- Can you describe to listeners -- you did such a good job in your book of describing some of the symptoms -- what a bad anxiety day might look like for you, in the past too?
Andrea: Anxiety for me has taken many, many forms. When it was really at its worst, I was having panic attacks, which are these incredibly intense episodes of really serious physical symptoms. I actually felt like I was dying. My heart was racing, short of breath, strange visual changes, and this feeling of overwhelming doom that I was about to die or go crazy. A panic attack is supposed to peak and abate within about ten minutes. I had this college breakdown where it felt like about a month-long panic attack. Yes, my fear had peaks and valleys. It basically left me totally incapacitated, a lump on my parent’s sofa. I had to drop my classes. I couldn't take my finals. I had to withdraw from school for a little bit. It was a whole-body illness. Unfortunately, I wasn’t accurately diagnosed for about a year. I ended up having some sort of medical odyssey. I'd like to think that wouldn't happen now, that doctors are a little bit more aware of the symptoms of anxiety. From the research that I've seen that still people with anxiety, often it’s ten years or more from their onset of symptoms to when they actually get professional help. There's still a long way to go.
Zibby: Do you have any advice for listeners out there who struggle with anxiety themselves? You had this beautiful essay that you wrote in The Oprah Magazine when you kept confusing the name -- you're playing with your daughter, pretend sisters -- you couldn't remember the name of the pretend character you were supposed to be because your mind was on a hundred other things, which I know I can relate to. I'm sure other people too.
How can you stay more in the moment without having to run to a yoga class? When you're in it, how do you try to keep the anxiety at bay enough to be focused? By the end of the article, you had a moment where you figured out what to do.
Andrea: Anxiety rises to a disorder when it’s really impairing your life, when it’s preventing you from working, being present in your relationships. That’s when you need to go get help. The two most evidence-based treatments for anxiety disorders are cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a kind of talk therapy where you learn to -- these catastrophic thoughts that we have when we’re anxious, we learn to modify them. The main component of the treatment is actually exposure where you repeatedly expose yourself to the very things that you're afraid of. It’s fairly effective. Also, anti-depressant medications like Lexapro and Zoloft and things like that have also been shown to be helpful, though the evidence for them is a little bit not as strong as people would like to be. I also talk a lot about, in the book, about some of the really exciting new science that's unraveling some of the mysteries of the anxious brain, and some of the new treatments on the horizon that aim to directly address some of the underlying cognitions that underlie anxiety, but also what's wrong, what's wonky in the brain too. There's a lot of exciting stuff around that.
When anxiety, if it doesn't rise to a disorder or you're trying to prevent a relapse if you do struggle with an anxiety disorder, a lot of the really boring adult things that we’re all supposed to do that we all know we’re supposed to do like get enough sleep, exercise, those are really critical for people with anxiety. There's a whole robust body of research that shows that insufficient sleep in particular is a really great way to put your anxiety on overdrive. Exercise, particularly things like yoga, anything that grounds yourself in the present moment, mindfulness meditation, there's a lot of great research around that. What I've found, anything that can ground myself in the present moment is really helpful. If you think about it, anxiety if the antithesis of that. It’s all about the future. It’s all about the catastrophe around the corner. If you can stay in the moment, that's the antidote to anxiety. If you're not into meditation -- I'm actually not that great at it, I do try -- listening to music or taking a walk. I actually find baking is one of my favorite soothing --
Zibby: I love baking. I'm totally with you. That's one of my favorites.
Andrea: I do too. There's something about following a recipe and the tactile nature of it. I get lost in that process. It settles my mind. There's research showing that taking a walk in nature can be really, really helpful.
Zibby: And probably writing?
Andrea: No, not for me. I find writing can be very anxiety-inducing, especially when I'm on deadline. It’s a battle between the deadline and the anxiety about not being able to express myself, always that feeling of inadequacy that I think a lot us writers have. What we hope to create doesn't always jive with what we end up creating.
Zibby: You don't use writing for yourself as a tool to sort through feelings or anything?
Andrea: No. I love it. I find in a lot of ways anxiety is fueled by work. First of all, when I was a news reporter, getting beaten at a story, also just the fear of messing up, this fear that I would make a mistake. It was very motivating to double-check, triple-check my work, do one more interview. In a way, paranoia can be a very useful quality in a journalist. [laughs]
Zibby: I find at least with writing, not that I do what you do, but you're so in control of it. You're in control of what you produce, and every word. If you want to fix it later, you go back and fix it, not after you send it to The Wall Street Journal, but before that stage. I was just chatting with two girlfriends who have been on-air. You can't take anything back. That's live TV.
What you said, by the way, about not getting enough sleep really amping up anxiety, that's so not fair, especially for parents of young kids. I don't know about you. I have kids in my room basically -- it’s getting better. There's somebody coming in usually most nights at least once. Especially with new kids, like when you have a new baby, sleep is impossible. It’s not even in the cards.
Andrea: New parenthood, not only is the sleep deprivation a reality but in some ways society is telling you to be anxious. We’re awash in parenting advice. The parenting advice can change all the time. When I talk about having my daughter and when she was a new baby, it finally felt like my circumstances caught up with my brain. I always had this anxious brain. Finally, it was socially acceptable. It’s not socially mandated that I be anxious all the time.
Zibby: Somebody was on the show recently and saying they never were anxious until they had a child. Then for the first time they're like, “Oh, my gosh. I can't cross the street.” That feeling of anxiety was so brand new that it was shocking both to her and her husband that all of a sudden she was that way.
Andrea: We spend so many years protecting, protecting, protecting. That's why I think this idea of going back to autonomy and independence, it can be very difficult to then be like, “Actually, the right thing to do for my child now is to try to get them to be more independent.” That's the parenting mission.
Zibby: Kids, if you're listening, I'm not doing anything for you anymore. That's it. Pack my bags for me.
What was the process of writing the book like for you?
Andrea: It was really intense. Being a news reporter for so many years, I'd written maybe a couple of first-person pieces. Writing something so personal was a real shift for me and something that was tough. How I went about it is I told myself that no one else was going to read it. I tried to turn off that self-editor, and also that my family wasn’t going to read it either. Ultimately, yes, obviously people read it. In order to write as authentically and honestly as I wanted to, I had to trick myself into thinking that I was only writing for myself.
Zibby: That's a good trick.
Andrea: Then I could tell myself, “I could always tone it down or rachet it back or delete some things if I felt like I needed to.” I didn't end up having to do that much. Especially with something like a memoir, you really have to put yourself out there in order for it to resonate with anyone else. For this book in particular I wanted to provide insight and empathy to all the other anxious people out there too. I'm hoping that some people might see similarities, and differences, but that my story would resonate with people.
Zibby: It certainly resonated with me. I also loved you included so much research. You weaved it throughout the text in such a nice way. You almost didn't notice that you were reading a textbook about anxiety while you're reading somebody's story.
Andrea: Thank you. I certainly hope it didn't read like a textbook.
Zibby: I meant that you conveyed as much information as you might have found in a textbook. However, it was a story. You wanted to keep reading because I wanted to see what happened to you next. What about the next boyfriend? Then what happened to her job? It’s so funny how I'm in bed reading about you and your entire life and everything. Then we meet in person. I already know all this stuff about you.
Andrea: [laughs] I know. Especially after people who have known me for a long time but maybe don't know about this part of my life so much, “Now, you know more about me than you ever wanted to know.”
Zibby: That's what connection’s all about.
Andrea: That's actually been one of the most exciting things about going around speaking about the book and travelling all over is having people come up and tell me some of their own stories too. We’ve got this group of anxiety warriors all out there supporting each other.
Zibby: That's nice. Are you going to start a new hashtag? #AnxietyWarrior
What's coming up next for you? What are you going to do next? You have another book? More Wall Street Journal?
Andrea: I'm working on a bunch more pieces. It’s been fun to get back into -- I'm a feature writer so I don't write daily journalism -- being out there with pieces more frequently. Also, we’re taking a little bit of a sojourn. My husband’s a professor. We’re going to be in Ireland this summer. That'll be fun. I’ll be doing writing from there while he's doing research. I do have another book idea that I'm noodling around on.
Zibby: For people who love anxious people, someone like my husband, let's say, who has to deal with me, what advice do you have for them? How can they help people who they love who have anxiety?
Andrea: That's a great question. It’s one that I get almost every time I speak about the book. First of all, the most important thing is to really believe and convey the belief that you understand that anxiety is not a weakness. It’s not a moral failing. Unfortunately, even with how far we've come in eroding stigma, that view is still out there. If only you worked a little harder or took a yoga class or took some deep breaths or just relax that you wouldn’t deal with it. Conveying the love and acceptance is the biggest gift you can give someone with anxiety.
Beyond that, everyone's different in terms of how they want someone to support them in the moment if they're having a panic attack or if they're feeling really, really anxious. For me, when I'm having a panic attack, I want my husband to hold my hand but I don't want him to talk to me. The most important thing is to ask. Ask the person that you love, “What can I do for you in that moment that will be helpful? Is it rub your back? Is it go to put on some music?” What does that person need in that moment?
Zibby: That helps. Thank you. Thank you so much.
Andrea: Thanks for having me.
Zibby: Thanks for sharing your story with the world and other warriors. Thanks for comin’ on the show.
Andrea: Thank you.
Zibby: Thank you.