04 Jun Anxiety in children and how to help
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a completely normal emotion that everybody experiences. It is the body’s way of responding to and preparing for a dangerous or stressful situation. Despite it being perfectly normal to feel anxious, the feeling of panic caused by anxiety can be very distressing, especially for children, and it can lead to difficulties with sleeping, eating, and physical health since it can cause tummy upsets, nausea, and other illnesses.
Why does anxiety happen?
Anxiety happens because a part of your brain called the amygdala springs into action when it senses you need protection from danger. It is a small, almond shaped part of the brain that hasn’t changed since pre-historic times.
If you think of it as a mighty warrior that warns you when it believes trouble is near, you won’t go far wrong.
It might even help for kids to name their mighty warrior so they can visualise it and understand they can separate out who they are and what they’re feeling. This mighty warrior, let’s call him ‘Orc’, has an important role because it’s his/her job to make sure you’re ready to either fight or run away when you’re in danger.
When Orc senses danger, he/she provides your body with lots of oxygen, adrenaline, and hormones so your body becomes as powerful as it can be. Your heart beats faster to frantically pump blood and oxygen to your legs and arms to enable you to either fight or run. Your breathing becomes faster and shallower to send oxygen to your muscles to make them strong. Your heart can feel like it is racing and that can make you feel sick. The oxygen build-up can also make you feel dizzy. You might also feel sweaty because your body wants to cool you down so that you won’t get too hot when you need to fight or run. Your digestive system can also temporarily grind to a halt as Orc senses that the energy it was using on digestion would be put to better use in your arms and legs. This might also lead to you feeling nauseous. All this happens really quickly and Orc does it without stopping to think and assess whether there is really any need for you to run or fight at all. Orc is great if you’re about to be attacked by a tiger as that’s a situation where you’d definitely need to run!
Orc is not so great if the danger he/she senses is something like doing a test at school. This is because the oxygen, hormones, and adrenaline he/she’s released into your body are not being used up on fighting or running, so they build up. It is this build up that causes anxious feelings.
Little actions that can help in a big way!
There are lots of ways to help with anxious feelings. Here are a few suggestions:
- Show that you get how kids with anxiety feel – If you can show you understand what they’re experiencing, they’re likely to feel calmer as they no longer feel they’re in this on their own
- Ask them what their anxiety feels like – If they struggle to describe it, ask if it’s a bit like what happens when you’re asleep and feel like you’re falling
- Try not to say, “There’s nothing to worry about” and/or “Everything will be fine” – If children think they’re worrying about something they shouldn’t be, they might think there’s something wrong with them – They need reminding instead that what they’re feeling is completely normal
- Explain why anxiety happens and get them to name their mighty amygdala warrior!
- Explain they can take control and tell their mighty warrior that he/she doesn’t need to leap into action because there’s nothing to fight or to run from
- Teach children to breathe deeply and slowly so that their tummy moves up and down – practise breathing in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds, and breathing out for 8 seconds every day – repeat this between 5 and 10 times
- Use mindfulness – help children to stay in the present by encouraging them to really notice what’s around them, to concentrate on their breathing, to notice the breeze on their skin, to notice what they can hear etc. Anxiety happens due to worrying about what might happen in the future. Being aware of the present moment helps to reduce those worries
- Remind children these little actions take practice but if they keep at it and they have patience, their anxiety will reduce.