Anxiety in any form is upsetting, particularly in children and teenagers, but it is treatable and understanding the reasons why our body reacts to it helps.
Anxiety can strike at any time, it doesn’t matter how strong a character you are, once it takes hold it can feel very debilitating when it is in full flow.
When anxiety happens in children or teenagers it is particularly upsetting not only for the individual but for those witnessing it first hand, but the good news is that with the right support and information it is very treatable. This is because children are very responsive to treatment and good at adapting quickly and making new connections.
Below is information about the ways to address anxiety in children and young adults and how to turn it around:
1. Understanding. When anxiety takes hold it is hard not to worry as the brain can’t make that connection so instead of telling your child not to worry or that it will be ok, what they need is your understanding. Try asking them how they feel and if they are able to explain it, take time to listen to them. We have all experienced that feeling as we drift off to sleep and feel like we’re falling or when we miss a step, that’s what it feels like and it such a relief to have someone who understands what they are experiencing.
2. It is Normal. Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life. Whether it is before an exam, starting a new job or school or before an interview or meeting new people. Sometimes it happens for no reason, but that is also normal too.
3. Explain what Anxiety is. Anxiety happens when a part in the brain called the amygdale switches on when it thinks you’re in danger and you need protecting. It gets you ready by preparing you to either run away from danger or ready to fight it, also known as ‘Fight or Flight’. When the amygdale senses danger it automatically and quickly floods your body with hormones, adrenaline and oxygen ready to fuel your muscles to run away or to fight. However the amygdale can’t tell the difference between something dangerous like a fall or being attacked and something less of a threat like an exam or a new school so if you don’t need to run away, all that fuel, oxygen, hormones such as adrenaline build up in your body. This then causes the following to happen:
· Your breathing changes leaving you more puffed out and feeling breathless. You also feel warm and your face may become red or flushed.
· If you don’t fight or flee, the oxygen builds up making you become dizzy or confused.
· Your heartbeat increases to pump the oxygen round your body leaving you feeling sick and your heart racing.
· The muscles in your arms and legs tense up and become tight as your body prepares to fight or flee.
· In preparation for running away, your body cools down by sweating to stop it overheating.
· You stop feeling hungry as your body uses the fuel to power your legs and arms to flee rather than using it to digest your food. This can cause butterflies in your tummy, nausea and your mouth can feel dry.
All these conditions are your body’s way of protecting you in a stressful situation and getting you ready to fight or flee even if there isn’t a reason to fight or flee. Your body is amazing at protecting you from danger even if it isn’t sure what the danger is.
4. Anxiety is extremely common- Did you know that 1 in 8 children have experienced anxiety and that is comforting to know that possibly children in their class or their friend’s will know what they’re going through.
5. Give your anxiety a name - By understanding that the anxiety feelings come from a part of the brain, ask your child to give it a name so that they feel like something else is the problem not them. Ask them to describe what they think it looks like and how they feel when they think of it. This all helps to simplify their anxiety as it now has a name and a look.
6. Get them into Position- Now the anxiety has a name, say ‘Zed’, you need your child to let ‘Zed’ know that they’re in control and calling the shots not ‘Zed’. When the anxiety feelings start to strike instead of ‘Zed’ jumping in to protect them you need them to let ‘Zed’ know they are alright. They can do this by concentrating on their breathing, turning the quick breaths into longer controlled breaths which will let’ Zed’ know they have this and are ok.
7. Breathing – Make sure their breathing is going right down into their tummy, not just the chest. By practising long and deep breaths before bed every night can make ‘Zed’ relax and convince him to ease off protecting your child and helping them to regain control. Eventually your child and ‘Zed’ will become buddies but with your child in control. Remember deep breaths down to their tummy, practice by placing a soft toy on your child’s belly, if it moves up and down then their breathing is perfect.
A technique I use with my clients to help balance their breathing is Square Breathing. Think of breathing round a square, buy taking a breath in for 4 counts up the LHS of the square, hold for 4 along the top, out for 4 down the RHS of the square and hold along the bottom for 4 and repeat. This lowers the stress hormones, heart rate and blood pressure.
8. Mindfulness- Practising mindfulness in adulthood has been proven to help increase the grey matter in the brain and provide protection and relief from depression, anxiety and stress. Your brain is a muscle so by exercising it can help strengthen it and stop it from worrying about things it doesn’t need to.
I use several exercises with my clients but think this is a good one to start with for children and adults. Remember, practice makes perfect so it may take time as our minds do like to wander!
1. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing, how does the air feel as you draw breath, notice your belly rising and falling and if your mind does wander, come back to your breathing again.
2. What can you hear, how does your body feel inside and out as you do this. If your mind wanders, return your focus to your breathing.
It will take time to convince the protective part of the brain that because it thinks there is trouble coming, doesn’t mean that it is and this will take time, but bear with it and in time you will get there.