Anxiety Management: It’s All Downhill from Here By Sarah Stauffer, PhD on 5/2/19 - 1:03 PM

Les relâches is a winter break that every Swiss public-school system takes in February, though the actual dates vary from canton (state) to canton. In French, “la relâche” means “rest,” but as this week usually involves skiing in Switzerland, it is the least restful week of my year! Personally, I call it anxiety management week. It is the one week every year that this psychotherapist becomes her own private client. I set a goal each time to try to keep up with my family on the trails for at least a couple of hours during the week. Sometimes I succeed, but, mostly, I just keep trying.

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During ski week, my empathy skyrockets for past and current clients who combat anxiety on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. I join their ranks in that need for anxiety management anytime my personal context intersects with a few notable laws of physics that involve speed and momentum. I employ copious doses of the cognitive, behavioral, and affect regulation strategies I often prescribe to the people I work with. These strategies become my lifelines on those steep mountains, which are crowded with other skiers who could literally carve laps around my effort-filled descents. My five-and-a-half-year-old daughter and my eight-year-old son are two of them.

I recognize that real danger is inherent in practicing a sport in which momentum is needed to perform accurately, and where the physical environment often includes steep, rock-and-tree-filled obstacles, much less the human-made ones. Learning to ski involves mitigating the risks of navigating changing terrain and conditions, avoiding falls and collisions with stable objects or other skiers, and maintaining one’s personal equilibrium within the bounds of one’s own ability and limits, all while attempting not to become the obstacle in other skiers’ paths! (From this angle, it actually sounds a lot like practicing therapy!)

This constant processing of rapidly evolving environmental data can frankly be quite physically and mentally exhausting! However, the rewards of learning to synchronize with oneself, with nature, and with others can also be quite rewarding, sometimes comical, and usually humbling.

My daughter and I had the makings of a beautiful mother-daughter moment together one afternoon on a blue trail when she decided to ski beside me, about three feet away. She excitedly exclaimed, “Mommy, you’re going fast now!” Her broad smile showed me that she meant this as a compliment and was proud of the progress I had made through the daily lessons I had been taking during the week. Several thoughts traversed my mind in rapid succession as I processed her spontaneous and heartfelt gesture and as my anxiety welled:

“Why are you looking at me and not straight ahead where you are going?”
“How on Earth do you ski without looking where you are going?!”
“How do you manage to get so close to others and not veer into their path?”
“Oh Heavens, you are close!”

As much as I was in awe of her ability to remain calm, cool, collected, and courageous in her posture (as we were speeding downhill, nonetheless), I began to have palpable concerns for her safety in skiing so close to me. Instead of relishing that beautiful mother-daughter moment she created, my thoughts raced, my anxiety overflowed, and I awkwardly blurted out, “Honey, please ski a little further away (so that if I crash and burn with the newfound awareness your astute speed observation evokes, I won’t be able to take you down with me)! I need a little more room to turn here.” She shrugged, then proceeded full speed down the mountain, making perfect “S” turns with her skis in parallel, catching up easily with her brother and father below.

My speed on skis, and my ability to go with the flow of it (instead of fighting it), is usually a great source of vexation for me and my family. My “pilates” approach to finishing a trail involves turning with intention, methodically repeating to myself, “Up... turn... down,” and mechanically pacing my breath to the piston-like movements I consciously will my knees to make. My family is greatly annoyed about the mid-trail wait times this entails for them, especially when we agree to stay together.

When in difficulty, staying together comprises part of the rules and common-courtesy practices that skiers adhere to for safety, along with signaling dangers to others and calling for or providing help. For the most part, I have been on the receiving end of those practices. But, with a few more ski weeks and the mental and emotional strategies I employ to stave off full-blown panic attacks, I may someday be able to help others as they have helped me on the trails. Until then, skiing with anxiety will continue to be downhill all the way.

Helping clients manage their anxiety through a caring counseling relationship allows them to see that they, too, can benefit from employing strategies discussed in session on their own slippery slopes. We can help them to categorize situations like ski trails to understand how steep the slope (and the learning curve) feels for them: blue for low anxiety, red for mounting anxiety, or black for high anxiety. We can accompany them in using their available and developing resources to recognize the thoughts that make their slopes feel dangerous to them and to process how their body captures, holds, and releases their anxiety, much like skiers must do to evaluate how their skis react to shifting environmental conditions throughout the day. We can urge them to consider how their anxiety affects them and their loved ones, and to call upon those loved ones for support when needed. With time and practice, they will hopefully learn to navigate those more difficult trails with greater agility, crossing their own finish lines in their own time and on their own two skis.


File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, A Day in the Life of a Therapist, Musings and Reflections