Don't Worry, Mom

Coping with anxiety in families

Embracing the Worst

Lessons learned from a stomach flu

It has been one of those months where anything that can go wrong will go wrong. The check engine came up on the car, the dishwasher started leaking, our computer is randomly turning itself off, and the central air conditioning has a funky smell coming out of it. Each day I have woken up wondering what will break today and what new problem will crop up. After days of this, I was at my breaking point. When it rains it pours and we were in danger of some serious flooding.

I usually try to approach life with the view that everything happens for a reason and rely on the Seinfeld-ian “Even Steven” concept that if one bad thing happens, something good will happen that will even it all out. But recently these approaches have failed me as our house has become one huge money pit, multiple systems in my car failed, and Murphy’s law has shined down on me a few too many times. I found myself so stressed that I could not sleep, and so bogged down with responsibilities and problems that I felt exhausted. So I searched for some inspiration to get me through this.

Eventually I was reminded of the wise words of a colleague. The colleague was working with a client who feared contracting a virus from touching door knobs and other potential sources of germs and therefore spent hours washing his hands and using hand sanitizer. My colleague was doing exposure and response prevention with the client—-having the client gradually exposed himself to potential sources of germs and not engage in washing or using hand sanitizer. At one point in the therapy, the client caught a stomach flu after doing an exposure. Suddenly the client’s fears were being realized.

It was at this point that the therapist told the client to “embrace the diarrhea.” Yes the client had gotten sick and that was the client’s worst fear. But the client was healthy again within a few days and had learned an important lesson—-that sometimes the things that stress us out the most aren’t nearly as bad as we think that they are. They may be uncomfortable and annoying; they may derail us for a period and make us feel exhausted and bogged down. But in the grand scheme of things, a few days of discomfort really isn’t that bad and we may realize that the thing that we have feared and stressed about for so long, really isn’t that big of a deal.

So I am now trying to embrace the figurative diarrhea that is being thrown at me. My car and house may be falling down around me. My kid may be throwing tantrums if we don’t watch “Finding Nemo” for a 5th time that day, and there may be a few more bad things to come. But in the long-run it will be okay and if I just embrace these bad things rather than becoming bogged down by them, I’ll be better able to deal with them and feel less stressed. After all, diarrhea happens to the best of us and the most important thing is that we find a way to cope with it that doesn’t make us even more miserable.

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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