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The anxiety pro

Psychologist John Dacey's own struggle with anxiety inspired a career helping others.
By Kimberly French
Spring 2007 2.15.07

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John Dacey

John S. Dacey learned to confront anxiety in personal tragedy. Now he helps others—especially parents—cope with their anxieties. (Suzanne Kreiter/Boston Globe)

John S. dacey has been dealing with anxiety his entire life. In 1957 a fire destroyed his family home in Binghamton, New York, and claimed the lives of his mother, two brothers, and two sisters. Dacey, then 20 and the oldest of nine children, was stationed with the Navy in Newport, Rhode Island. He was consumed by grief as well as guilt. “I kept thinking, If I’d only been there, I would have seen something, or I could have saved someone. It was about as irrational as you can get,” he says.

To blunt his feelings, he turned to alcohol and developed agoraphobia. For more than a decade he wouldn’t travel on highways, bridges, islands, or out of state. At his lowest point he was too fearful to go into the center of the small New England town where he lives.

While preparing to become a psychologist himself, he realized he had a serious anxiety disorder and sought help. A therapist identified his real problem as post-traumatic stress disorder and worked intensively with him, simulating conversations with his lost loved ones. “I sobbed for three months,” he recalls.

Now comfortable with traveling and speaking widely, Dacey, a psychology professor emeritus at Boston College, has devoted his life to helping other people with anxiety disorders. “Every time I can use what I learned to help others, it makes my own catastrophe a little less terrible,” he says. “It makes everything better to say, It’s up to me to use that. I’m not just a passive victim.”

Dacey has cowritten thirteen books on the topic, including Your Anxious Child, The Nurturing Parent, and The Safe Child Handbook. The father of three daughters and the grandfather of nine children, Dacey wrote this most recent book because he saw the toll that an overload of responsibility and anxiety was taking on parents, especially mothers—and how that in turn affected children.

The most prevalent psychiatric diagnosis among children, anxiety disorders have increased 30 percent over the past decade, afflicting 13 percent of all children. Anxious children, Dacey says, are more likely to become depressed and abuse drugs and alcohol.

All of his books are based on the four-step method he originated to teach children to reduce anxiety, which goes by the acronym COPE: calm the nervous system, originate creative plans to relieve anxiety, persist in the face of obstacles and failure, and evaluate success to adjust the plan accordingly. He offers practical exercises for children and families to do together that combine physical, mental, and spiritual antidotes to anxiety.

Dacey, now a lay minister at the Follen Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Lexington, Massachusetts, is a believer in the power of amulets such as prayer beads, a lucky charm, or an object given personal meaning. When his granddaughter was five, she developed a strong fear of thunderstorms. Dacey gave her a brass medallion she knew was important to him and invited the family to a ceremony to bless it and each say a prayer for her courage. She used the medallion through the next few storms. After that, she knew her family wanted her to know she was safe and no longer needed it.

Dacey, who specializes in adolescence, raised three teens as a divorced dad. “I loved it,” he says. “Adolescence gets a very bad name. Teens are no more trouble and don’t have any more mood swings than any other period of childhood. It’s just different.” He praises the UUA’s Our Whole Lives (owl) sexuality-education program, which he has taught, saying every kid in the country should take it. He remembers showing the group a model of an erect penis, and one girl burst out, “I don’t think so!” Laughing, he asks, “Isn’t that more powerful than any abstinence curriculum?” Today he serves on the board of the UU Urban Ministry, helping coordinate college student volunteers to work in the inner-city after-school program. And he recently signed on with MTV to answer questions parents send in by e-mail about adolescents.

Above all, Dacey’s message is to reassure parents, whatever problems and fears they’re facing. “I like to say to people, Look at the odds. You’re really safer than you think you are. The most important danger is fear.”

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