Helping Children Manage Anxiety

With camp around the corner, G1’s anxiety levels are at an all-time high. It was pretty good timing that our school ran a workshop on anxiety and learning to manage it. These are my notes from the workshop (with annotations)…

Defining Anxiety

Anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.”

Stress is defined as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”

In G1’s case, anxiety is how he feels about camp, and stress is the way his body responds to it.

As we’ve written before in a previous post, we don’t want to eliminate all stress because some stress can be good. What we want to do is help our kids learn to manage their stress to support rather than sabotage their goals.

Firstly, let’s look a little deeper to understand the stress response…

Fight/Flight/Fright Response

The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is an involuntary survival mechanism that triggers the fight/flight/fright response. During this response, energy is redirected away from the brain and other bodily functions to the large muscles in the body. It helps us prepare to fight, flee, or freeze. Common signs and symptoms include:

  • Energy is redirected to the muscles for action.
  • Heart rate and blood pressure increases.
  • Airway passages widen and breathing increases.
  • Hyperventilation or shortness of breath.
  • Chest pain.
  • Dizziness or feeling faint.
  • Blood vessels to essential areas dilate, while those to “non-essential” areas constrict.
  • Headaches.
  • Paling or flushing, or alternating between both.
  • Chills and goosebumps.
  • Hot flashes and sweating.
  • Shaking/trembling.
  • Changes in vision – pupils dilate or constrict; vision widens or becomes tunnel vision; loss of peripheral vision, blurred vision.
  • Auditory exclusion or overload. This is part of the reason why young children cover their ears when they’re stressed – because everything is too loud.
  • Digestion slows or stops – poor appetite.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Relaxing of the bladder and/or anal sphincter (reducing body load so we can run faster away from danger).
  • Excessive gas.
  • Saliva is reduced – dry mouth.
  • Tear production is reduced.
  • Numbness or tingling in hands or fingers.
  • Inhibition of erection and sexual response.
  • Immunity is compromised.
  • Aches or pains.

Changes in behaviours resulting from the stress response:

  • Sleep issues – always tired; hard to fall asleep; poor sleep; difficult to walk up.
  • Bad-tempered and irritable.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • Disorganised.
  • Feeling out of control.
  • Loss of interest in activities.
  • Feeling sad or crying.

Everyone feels stress differently and how they feel may vary from experience to experience.

How is the SNS Triggered?

  • When we perceive danger – whether it is real or not.
  • Most times when we feel stress, the danger we sense is NOT real – it is a perceived threat, not a real threat.
  • We think a threatening thought that creates the feeling of fear; it triggers our SNS and creates the stress response.

Common examples of how the stress response is triggered:

  • Fright: You see a really attractive person walking towards you that you’ve been wanting to ask out. Your heart starts beating faster, you may have a hot flash, you might tremble a little, and then you struggle to speak.
  • Flight: You opt not to go on your girls’ night out because you realise that the outfit you envisioned wearing is now a little tight.
  • Fight: You wake up late, splash orange juice on your work shirt and your toddler suddenly needs a last-minute poo just after you’ve put your shoes on and locked the door. You yell at your toddler.

In none of these situations are we really in danger, but our body responds as if we are in danger.

The Stress Curve

As mentioned earlier, stress is neither good or bad. We need some stress in our lives to help us function at optimum levels. Without stress, we’re bored, lethargic, and unmotivated. If we have too much stress, we’re overwhelmed, fatigued, prone to getting sick. If the stress continues unmanaged, we will eventually breakdown and burnout. What we want to do is manage the stress so that the level is optimal.

Cognitive Behavioural Cycle

Image Source: Pinterest

Our thoughts control our feelings, our feelings determine our behaviour, our behaviours affect our experiences, and our experiences reinforce our thoughts. If our thoughts are negative, it creates a negative behavioural cycle.

When we have fear-producing thoughts:

  • We exaggerate the scenario and ignore the positives.
  • Overgeneralise and catastrophize the situation.
  • We develop irrational, unrealistic expectations.
  • Negative thinking and self-criticism.
  • Loss of control and emotional reasoning.
  • Inability to predict the future accurately.
anxiety

Cognitive Tools for Managing Stress and Anxiety

One way to manage stress is to interrupt our cognitive behavioural cycle and alter the flow. We begin by changing our thinking. That, in turn, changes our feelings. This has a knock-on effect in the behavioural cycle, triggering a positive spiral. Positive emotions lead to positive behaviours which usually result in positive experiences that go back to reinforce positive thinking.

RULER – Emotional Intelligence

Image Source: Yale University

Use the acronym RULER to help change our thinking and modify our cognitive behavioural cycle:

The Calming Technique

anxiety

We use this method to shift ourselves from panic to calm. In order for it to work, we must be familiar with the process so we can quickly and effectively implement it during a state of panic. The sooner and more effortlessly we employ these steps to calm ourselves; the easier it will be to regain control. It is important to practice the steps and visualise ourselves successfully calming down during a stressful moment.

  1. Very calmly and plainly explain to yourself what’s happening in exceptionally boring terms.
  2. Remind yourself that this is discomfort not danger. You can tolerate being temporarily uncomfortable.
  3. Tell yourself that you will be fine once calmed.
  4. Begin focusing on belly breathing (see below). Tell yourself what you’re going to do. “I’m going to control my breathing. I know this will take a minute, but I am going to breathe deeply and slowly.”
  5. Just observe the negative thoughts that distract you and bring your focus back to the breath.
  6. Implement an additional predetermined relaxation technique (if necessary).
  7. Tell yourself your truths – from a repertoire of previously prepared and practiced phrases.
  8. Open your eyes and praise yourself for creating calm.
  9. This will help you return to the task with a clearer more focused mind.
  10. Slowly proceed – looking at one step at a time.

Breathing Strategy

meditation candle for managing anxiety
  1. Empty your lungs
  2. Inhale through your nose for 4 counts
    • Smell something amazing
    • Let the air expand your belly
  3. Hold the breath for 7 counts
    • Count or observe
  4. Exhale evenly for 8 counts
    • Let the candle flame dance
    • Feel your stress melt and let gravity do the work

How to Help an Anxious Person

  • Stay calm and non-judgmental.
  • Don’t say “don’t worry” or “calm down”.
  • Remind them that this is temporary.
  • Remind them that they’re not alone.
  • Ask if they have a way to calm themselves that works for them or ask what they need.
  • Breathe with them.
  • Massage their hands.
  • Distract them.
  • Walk briskly.

Behavioural Tools for Managing Stress

  • Make lifestyle choices that strengthen our bodies for optimal resiliency.
  • Anxiety increases when we’re tired, run-down and overwhelmed. (See: Mental Toughness and Resilience).
  • Resilience during stressful times depends on our physical and mental health.

To make sure we’re ready to manage stress, we need to…

Eat Well

Photo 5 - Chapter 4 Cover
Image Source: Brainchild
  • We need to eat well for optimal physical, mental and emotional functioning.
  • Eat 3 regular meals with small, healthy snacks between.
  • Eat breakfast within an hour of waking up.
  • Avoid sugar and caffeine, which can make anxiety and stress worse, diminish concentration, increase irritability and cause dizziness. They also cause significant fluctuations in blood sugar levels and energy.
  • Whole grains and proteins give sustained energy.
  • Try to drink 6-8 glasses of water every day.
  • Have something to eat before a stressful experience, however queasy you are feeling.

Sleep Well

sleep
  • Aim for 8+ hours of sleep a night.
  • Sufficient sleep can minimise anxiety and stress, improve concentration and memory and increase a positive outlook.
  • Get into a sleep routine. Try going to bed earlier in 15 minute increments.
  • Make sure you have time to unwind before bed.
  • Make sure you’re awake for at least two hours before a stressful event.

More about the essentials of sleep.

Exercise is Good

exercise for managing anxiety
  • Regular exercise will boost your energy, calm your mind and increase endorphins – the “feel-good, positive, stress-relieving” hormone.
  • Your heart rate is escalated, which allows for increased oxygen flow and toxin removal – priming your brain for maximum performance.
  • Exercise will help to keep you feeling balanced, improve concentration levels and help you to sleep better.

More about exercise – the benefits and the recommended prescription.

Laughter is Good

laughter for managing anxiety
  • Laughter is scientifically proven to reduce stress hormones, increase healthy blood flow and improve concentration and overall health.

Talk with Others

greg-raines-THC13xRi_q0-unsplash
Photo by Greg Raines on Unsplash
  • Chat with someone who will talk to you like you should be talking with yourself. Someone who understands the pressure you’re under.

Prioritise and Balance

  • Set a personalised and realistic timetable and stick to it.
  • Don’t overwhelm or exhaust yourself.
  • Schedule recreation time.
  • Recognise when you’re stressing out, stop and do something different.
  • Make sure your materials are well prepared in advance.

Take Control

highlight reel
  • Work in a manner that suits YOU best.
  • Get help when needed.
  • Don’t compare your approach and abilities with others.
  • Memorise your “top truths”.

Reward Yourself

  • Find small, medium and big ways to reward yourself (non-sugar) for your hard work.
  • Create a visual representation of your celebration to remind you that this is only temporary and there is an end in sight.

Relaxation Techniques for Managing Stress

Source: Harvard Health

1. Focusing on the breath – following the breathing exercise above, gently disengage your mind from distracting thoughts and sensations.

2. Body scan – this technique is a popular mindfulness exercise that combines breathing with progressive muscle relaxation. As you breathe, focus on each part of your body and mentally release any physical tension you feel there.

3. Guided imagery – this is a good exercise to use with younger kids who may struggle with focus. Shambala Kids provides some terrific guided imagery recordings you can use with children. You can also make up your own. Use HD wallpaper images to draw inspiration.

guided imagery for managing anxiety

4. Mindfulness meditation – this form of meditation requires you to focus on your breathing while bringing your mind’s attention to the present moment without drifting into concerns about the past or the future.

5. Yoga, tai chi, and qigong – these physical practices combine rhythmic breathing with a series of postures and flowing movements.

6. Repetitive prayer – for those who are spiritual, prayer can be especially effective for managing stress.

Rather than using just one method, try a mix of the above exercises. Target to practice at least 20 minutes a day. Even if you can’t manage that, even a few minutes is better than none. Slowly build up your practice time from there.

More resources for mindfulness practices.

Related:

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

5 thoughts on “Helping Children Manage Anxiety

  1. Hi Shen,

    Being a single father to a 8 year old kid, I have to work extra hard to connect with my son. He has been reserved since begining but lately he has been developing anxiety issues and I make sure I introduce these tips in his life. thanks for tips..
    Wish me luck….

    Like

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