The Skill of Faking Calm When You Are Anxious

Coronavirus Planning Preparation Prevention COVID-19 Outbreak Pandemic 3d Illustration

As all of us deal with the current Covid-19 pandemic, over and over reports show that common emotions most of us are experiencing is that of anxiety. This anxiety stems from all the stress of the uncertainty, unpredictability, potential dangers and resulting fears swirling around us and within us. Everywhere we turn the news is constantly dosing us with information and advice. The key components of experiences that result in being traumatized are those that cause us to feel threatened, fearful, in danger, and are perceived as inescapable. It is easy to see that the current situation can be highly traumatizing for many of us with existing trauma.

People are asking how they can better cope so that their anxiety does not overwhelm them. They also want advice on how to help their children, who can absorb the emotions their parents are experiencing, which often then translates into them experiencing the same emotions without the abilities to consciously understand what they are feeling and why.

Something I shared many blogs ago and want to, again, recommend is the idea of faking calm. I learned this skill when I attended a course at Temple University, led by Dr. Mel Silberman on the subject of discipline. He authored the book How to Discipline without Feeling Guilty, a book that specifically focused on assertiveness training for parents. While projecting calmness is an important skill to apply when disciplining children, it is also useful at times like this when parents experience their own overwhelming emotions and sensations of anxiety. It is a skill to use when observing high levels of anxiety in our children and we need guidance navigating these frightening feelings.

mother comforting a boy child who is in tears crying over notebook.

Below are some clues for parents to notice when calmness might be needed to help mitigate the overwhelming anxiety connected with the current pandemic. These include times when we or our children are feeling:

  • overwhelmed
  • terrified
  • in great danger
  • that we are powerless to keep them safe
  • that there is no escaping some kind of terrible outcome
  • that we might all become sick and/or even die
  • that no one seems to know exactly what to do
  • that there are no answers for correcting/preventing the problem
  • that we cannot stand all the isolation we are experiencing with no end in sight
  • that we cannot provide adequate care for them, including educating them
Father comforting scared child.

Clearly there are many reasons, some more legitimate than others, for experiencing high levels of anxiety.  For most of these, there are alternative ways to view what is happening.

Some key principles of calmness involve appreciating the following:

  • There can be almost a reciprocal dance of anxiety where one person’s anxious feelings and behaviors get passed to the other person. It is through this dance that the anxiety is perpetuated and even escalated.
  • Highly anxious, overwhelmed parents often look scary to children, making them fearful and insecure.
  • Calmness is both a skill and an attitude.
  • Calmness can be faked, i.e. parents do not have to feel calm to behave calmly.
  • Often as a parent fakes calm by behaving calmly, the calmer that parent feels.

Some benefits of staying calm:

  • Calmness allows you to maintain control over your reactions and responses.
  • Calmness invites children to become calm.
  • Calmness helps a parent think more clearly, stay focused, be more confident. 
  • Calmness helps both parents and children to use more of the thinking parts of their brains rather than functioning from lower brain areas that involve feelings of emotion, including fear and terror.

Some behaviors of being calm:

 • Avoid yelling or speaking in a high, out of control voice.

• Instead, use a confident voice tone.

• Speak slowly, clearly, with control.

• Acknowledge probable feelings of anxiety without sounding anxious yourself.  

• Add calming affirmations.

• Describe specific expectations enabling children to focus on normal home activities.

• Use eye contact to show you are confident and in charge.

• Avoid pleading, whining, begging children to behave. These behaviors can make you seem unsure which can in turn lead to greater anxiety in your  children.

• Use shoulder shrugging – project an “oh well” attitude if there are objections

• Use physical contact such as a touch on the shoulder, to ground the child (this should not be forceful or hurtful in any way).

• Use the “broken record technique,” patiently repeating your expectation over and over, regardless of any arguments by the child.

• Use slow and deliberate movements or just remain silent

• Know that non-verbal messages may speak louder than words and may give  you a chance to demonstrate and, if necessary, fake being calm

Use I-messages.

• Express confidence in your child to comply.

• Calmly teach your child that they can manage inner thoughts and feelings of   anxiety.

• Provide outlets for your children to express their anxiety without obsessing on  it. Use your calmness (faked or real) to help them be creative in chasing away anxious thoughts.

• Describe specific ways you are managing your anxiety and not allowing it to take over your thoughts and feelings. Speak with confidence about your abilities to manage these. Let them know you are in charge of how your mind and brain work and we can change the way we feel.

• Insist on being playful. Be silly. Find funny YouTube videos to enjoy    together. 

This models ways we can all find our inner calmness even if we have to start by faking that calmness. In the midst of feeling powerless in this pandemic, we can claim our power to fake calmness which in turn can allow us to legitimately become calmer. Projecting calmness is a skill and like any skill requires self-discipline, determination and repetition in order to become more proficient at it.

These principles of calmness can empower our children so they too can claim their right not to allow anxiety to override their abilities to reduce fear-driven thoughts, beliefs and behaviors. We want to all experience greater confidence and to embrace the hope that together over time we have the resources and brilliant minds to successfully combat this virus and allow us to return to a normal lifestyle.

Invitation to Reflect:

  1. To what degree are you experiencing high levels of anxiety as a result of the news about the Covid-19 virus?  How are you managing that anxiety?
  2. To what extent have you observed your children or other family members exhibiting high levels of anxiety?
  3. Do you see any of the clues to be calmer in you? Your children?
  4. How might you apply some of the suggestions for projecting and even faking calmness?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute