It happened twice yesterday.
After leaving Spiderman: Homecoming, I was browsing through my Facebook feed while my husband drove. I paused at a status update from a page I didn’t recognize: “Harper’s Heroic Fight*.” It was accompanied by a photo of a blonde toddler, her eyes squeezed shut. The update thanked everyone for their messages and prayers, and said that Harper had done great at her latest round of chemo, but was having trouble with her vision (hence the closed eyes).
I put the pieces together easily. Harper’s Heroic Fight was a Facebook page dedicated to a toddler fighting some horrible, awful disease—probably cancer, based on the chemo comment.
But I was confused. I had never seen Harper’s Heroic Fight before, and I had never “liked” the page, so it made no sense why it was popping up in my feed. I scanned the update to discern why it was showing up. There it was above the update: “Your friend ____ liked this.”
I shuddered a little. Childhood cancer is one of my greatest fears as a parent, one of many things that keeps me up at night and puts my mind into a tailspin of paralyzing worry. I couldn’t let myself go down that rabbit hole.
I kept scrolling.
A few posts later, another status update appeared from a page I didn’t recognize.
“Prayers for Jaden*” had posted an update and a photo of a gaunt but happy toddler with short blonde hair and blue eyes. I read it quickly. Jaden’s latest tests had come back and the results weren’t good. His particular type of leukemia was aggressive and rare, and the doctors weren’t sure how they should proceed.
I stopped reading at that point. I couldn’t handle this parent’s raw, exposed fear anymore. And who was this parent, anyway? Why was I seeing Prayers for Jaden?
I looked above the post, and sure enough, there it was again. “Your friend _______ liked this.” It was a different friend, but the gist was the same.
I shuddered again, but this time, on the heels of the shudder was pure rage.
F**k you, Facebook.
I. Do. Not. Need. This.
Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not unsympathetic to the plights of these poor families. I cannot imagine what they’re going through, and my heart breaks for them.
But these status updates that pop up unwillingly in my news feed, reminding me that horrible things are happening right-this-minute to sweet, adorable children right in my backyard—THIS IS WHY I SPEND EVERY DAY SQUELCHING A MASSIVE AMOUNT OF ANXIETY JUST TO FUNCTION AS A PARENT.
I have no shortage of fears that near-paralyze me on a daily basis. Letting my kids be kids in this scary world is so hard, I can’t imagine how immobile I would be if I wasn’t already medicated and in therapy.
My list of fears is long, irrational, and at the same time, completely plausible. Backover accidents. My garage door closing on my children. Child abductions from public places (or even our own front yard). Hot-car deaths. Trench-coat flasher pedophiles at the playground. Unsecured guns in the homes where my children have playdates. Mass shootings at public gatherings (like the State Fair). Wrong-way drivers on the interstate. Measles outbreaks thanks to unvaccinated masses.
And the granddaddy of them all, the one that Facebook WILL NOT let me forget: pediatric cancer.
What makes me say these fears are plausible? Because I hear about them happening every day. Maybe not in my backyard, but somewhere in the state, the country, or the world.
How do I hear about them? That money-grubbing social network that we all love to hate: Facebook.
Overexposure equals overestimation of risk
Here’s the thing: children have been dying for decades from these cancers. Studies have shown that the frequency isn’t increasing—the same numbers are being lost now as in the 70s and 80s. We’re getting better at diagnosing them, and more quickly. We’re saving more children than ever from these afflictions.
In the 1980s, we didn’t get firsthand reports from the parents of every suffering child in a four-state radius. Now we do. And even worse, it happens against our will. I did not invite Prayers for Jaden or Harper’s Heroic Fight into my newsfeed, or my consciousness. Facebook’s stupid f**king algorithm put them there.
I DO NOT WANT THIS INFORMATION, and I do not NEED this information.
Cavemen, tigers, and why Facebook is crazy-making
I read an analogy once of how social media leads to this over-perception of risk, and subsequently, sky-high anxiety. I can’t remember where I read it, so I can’t attribute it properly, but this was the gist.
Imagine a society of 100 cave dweller families back in the Stone Age. Their community was spread out across several miles, and nearby, there roamed a sabre-toothed tiger who occasionally picked off a human for a tasty meal. Every day, the tiger walked past one cave. Just one. (Maybe he had OCD, I don’t know… stay with me here.) Each evening, the families would gather in groups of two or three to socialize. Your chances of hearing about a tiger-sighting were pretty slim—about 2% to 3% any given day.
Now imagine that the Stone Age cave-dwellers had social media. Now you don’t just hear from your small social circle. Your reach is amplified far beyond it, to all of the cave-dweller families, whether they’re in your circle or not.
Every time a tiger is sighted, the family who spotted it posts to the forum: “OMG A SABRE-TOOTHED TIGER JUST WALKED BY OUR CAVE DOOR!” or “Uncle Barney was just eaten by the tiger. His slow running speed has come back to bite him, literally.”
With the addition of social media, your chances of hearing about a tiger sighting have gone from 3% to 100%. Suddenly leaving your cave to hunt for nuts and berries feels like a risk you can’t afford. Tiger sightings and deaths, simply by virtue of hearing about them more often, are seen as likely if not inevitable.
In this analogy, I’m the cavemom huddled in the corner, shaking, my arms tightly around my cavebabies, all of us probably starving to death because I am afraid to leave the cave to get food.
Our brains are programmed to assess risk based on how frequent those risks are presented to us. When they appear so often, our brain overestimates the actual chances of that event occurring. Therein lies the problem.
Where do we go from here
To be honest, I don’t have a perfect solution. There are a few options:
- Remove myself from Facebook. Not optimal, since I actually enjoy a lot of the updates I see from friends and family.
- Complain to Facebook and ask them to change their algorithm. Easy to do, but the chances of actual change resulting from this is approximately the same as being struck by lightning while brushing my teeth indoors.
- Stay on Facebook but “hide” these pages every time a new update appears. This is easy to do but doesn’t really fix the problem. These tragic circumstances will still be entering my consciousness, and I’ll still be registering them: “Oh, look, another kid with cancer, dammit.”
See? Unless I’m missing something, my options are terrible.
Suck it up, buttercup
Maybe you’re reading this thinking, “God, Lydia, you are a piece of work. I see the same stuff and it doesn’t faze me one bit.”
Lucky you, friend! You’re one of the blessed ones. You can look at the sabre-tooth tiger updates and remain calm, remembering that the last time someone you knew got eaten was months ago. You’ve got the gift of perspective.
People with anxiety struggle to apply realistic perspective to everyday life. What if this is the year that a suicidal teenage gunman plows through the Iowa State Fair? What if during the 25 seconds since I walked to the garage, one of my kids left the breakfast table and somehow ended up behind my car, where I’ll surely back over them since I don’t have a backup camera? (Better get out and check.) What if, what if, what if?
This is life for me, and for so many other moms who find themselves paralyzed by fear. If you think we sound weak and crazy, it’s because you’ve never walked a mile in our shoes. Consider yourself insanely lucky you don’t have to.
Coping strategies for anxiety
I’ve established that I’m a little bit loony. If you’re still reading, hopefully it’s because you get it and can empathize. Like me, you might prefer to keep your loved ones inside their safe little bubbles. Unfortunately, life keeps marching on. I have to deal with it whether I like it or not. Here’s how I get by.
My therapist introduced me to this coping mechanism, and although I am really bad about practicing, I still employ the tactic whenever I find myself spinning into panic and anxiety. The point of mindfulness is to get out of your own head and into the present: where you’re sitting, what you see, what you can smell, the sensations you feel.
Here’s an example. Instead of thinking this: “What if Squeak has a throat tumor and that’s why he breathes so loud? It’s been getting louder lately, hasn’t it? Maybe I should make a doctor’s appointment. Better Google it…” I think this: “That is my computer monitor. I’m sitting in a chair, feeling the fabric of the chair against my legs, and it’s rough and kind of tickly. I can feel air moving in through my nose and back out. My feet are pressed against the floor and my sandals feel cool and soft.”
Pull yourself out of your head and into the now. If your mind starts to wander back to worry (“My sandals feel cool and soft, but maybe I need new ones, these are getting old, but I don’t think I can afford new ones, I was a little short on last month’s Visa payment, and my husband is going to be so mad if I keep overspending…”), just recognize that you’ve wandered off and pull yourself back to now.
Don’t berate yourself. Just recognize it, and fix it. You didn’t fail. It’s called practice for a reason, just like yoga. You can’t be perfect.
Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness regularly actually changes how your brain is wired. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at managing anxiety, and you’ll actually experience less of it. Want to know more? This article runs through Six Scientifically Proven Benefits of Mindfulness and Meditation.
Find a good therapist
When we’re diagnosed with diabeetus or sciatica, we’re not expected to heal ourselves. We work with trained professionals. A malfunctioning noggin is no different. A therapist can guide you through the process of identifying triggers, choosing coping strategies, and employing those strategies.
Bonus: it’s an hour of time every week/two weeks that’s just for you. Most moms have a shortage of self-care time, so consider this an investment in your own mental health. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we’re all better mothers when we’re mentally healthy.
Medication, when warranted
Some people see this as a method of last resort, but I’m a big believer in recognizing when you need extra help and getting it. Sometimes we can’t fix our brains through sheer will. Anxiety isn’t “all in your head” (in the figurative sense; of course, in the literal sense, it’s all about how your brain is working, so technically it is). Don’t be too proud to get help when your anxiety is causing you to skip activities you enjoy, or keeping you from doing what you want (or need) to do.
Start with your family doctor, or better yet, locate a good doctor who specializes in these types of medications, and can help you adjust medication and dosages to find the perfect fit.
This isn’t my cup of tea, obviously, but for some folks, its really helpful. Do what works for you.
Exercise and sleep
A regular exercise regimen that gets your heart pumping will help your body metabolize stress hormones, which leaves less of those hormones to freak you the f*** out on a daily basis. If you exercise, you’ll sleep better too (I definitely saw this happen when I started working out regularly), and getting enough sleep is important to reducing anxiety. Yeah, I know these two pieces of advice put a major cramp in your style, but isn’t it worth it if it works?
How I wanted to end this
My first thought was to write something along the lines of, “Put on your big girl panties and get on with it” here. But you know what? That’s not what I would ever tell someone with depression. Accordingly, it’s not appropriate advice for anxiety, either.
The best we can do is find ways to manage it, whether that’s through non-medical methods like mindfulness and therapy or with medication.
Anxiety isn’t going anywhere—not in this era of over-information. And while the superhero/comic book movie references are my husband’s fortè and not mine, I’ll give you one anyway. For the foreseeable future, I’ll strive to be more like Darwin from X-Men: adapt to survive.
*Obviously these page names are made up.