More and more people are suffering from anxiety due to many different factors relating to our modern lifestyle among other things and unfortunately this trend increasingly affects our children.
Anxiety is a very abstract, frightening and confusing experience and children often are unable to recognise anxiety for what it is. Unfortunately they might get into a cycle of negative self-awareness, of thinking there is something wrong with them. Children and teenagers might label themselves as strange, weird, crazy and even out of control bringing with it feelings of shame, fear and confusion.
I remember having my first panic attacks many years ago, thinking I was having a heart attack, a stroke or I was simply going to die. This might sound melodramatic to some, but that was exactly what it felt like to me, and I know I am not alone with these perceptions. I am an adult though and as frightening and confusing anxiety was/is to me, at least I have skills to try and make sense of it, to seek help and learn helpful techniques, to research and read up about it, to explain exactly what I am experiencing to family, friends or professionals.
Young children do not have these skills yet and it is important for us parents and educators to step in and help our children make sense of their experience.
A good starting point is always to give simple facts in an age appropriate and easily understandable way:
- Everybody will experience anxiety at some stage in their life.
- Anxiety is a normal response to danger or stress.
- Even though anxiety can feel scary at times, it will pass again.
- Anxiety is actually a superhero, a lifesaver and protector. It gives us great powers and energy to flee or fight should there be real danger (see description of physical reactions below).
- Anxiety is not a weakness, it has nothing to do with strength or courage or the lack thereof.
What actually happens when we experience anxiety?
Anxiety is firmly rooted in our evolution and it used to be our survival instinct thousands of years ago. Anxiety triggered our fight or flight response when we were in real danger from predators for example. The physical processes that happen in our body will help us in an instant to deal with a dangerous situation and either run away or fight for our lives. As this reaction is instant, we disconnect from rational thinking and get into an instinctive mode.
The part of our brain responsible for this response is the “amygdala”, which acts like a fire alarm when it thinks we are in danger and it triggers the following physical reactions:
- Our breath becomes very fast and short in order to preserve oxygen that can be sent to our muscles instead, for us to be able to run or fight: We might feel out of breath, blood rushes to our face and it might feel hot.
- “Energy” is sent to our arms and legs in case we have to flee or fight: Our limbs might feel tense or even numb and tingly.
- Our heart starts to beat faster in order to get oxygen to everywhere in our bodies fast: We feel our hearts racing, sometimes beating so hard we can feel it in our throats.
- Our body starts to cool itself down in order for us not to overheat while running for our lives or fighting a dangerous attacker: We start to sweat.
- In order to save energy our digestive system shuts down temporarily: We might feel the urge to run to the loo or we have a sore tummy.
- As in our modern life anxiety often is a “false alarm” and we don’t run or fight, oxygen accumulates and the carbon dioxide levels in our bodies drop: We might feel dizzy or confused.
Unfortunately our survival instinct does not seem to be very compatible with our modern life. Thousands of years ago life was very simple, basic and clear. Situations were often predictable and there were few distractions. Our alarm system was our protector, it literally saved our lives and clearly told us: “Run, there is a lion approaching”, or “There is a storm coming, let’s get back home quickly!”. Nowadays there is so much stimulation, distraction, activity and general busyness and it seems our amygdala often misinterprets these sensory stimuli as actual danger.
What can we do to help our children (and ourselves)?
Initially it would be helpful to find out the root cause (if there is an obvious one) to our child’s anxiety. Sometimes it can be as easy as making simple changes to the environment or routines that can make a big difference to anxiety levels. Is the child worried about something in particular? Are weekly activities just getting too busy? Does the child get enough rest, exercise and healthy nutrition? Once the basics are covered we will have a starting point for intervention.
The good news is that we can actively help our children to understand, reduce and relieve anxiety. First and foremost it is important that we prioritise our children’s emotional education. It is crucial that our children learn not only to identify their own emotions and feelings, but also those of others. This will put down the foundation for children to understand their emotions and the triggers and reasons behind them, but also they will be able to understand how others are affected. The more open we are about our own emotions, the more children learn that it is normal to feel their full spectrum. It’s how we respond that will make all the difference.
The amygdala might be in charge of our/their brains at the moment, but we can actively train our brain and help the amygdala understand that there is no real danger present. Mindfulness exercises can build healthier more integrated pathways in the brain and there are fantastic publications out there explaining the processes in our brains (I can highly recommend books by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Chris Bergstom’s illustration especially for children on www.blissfulkids.com).
The best “first aid helpers” in my view are breathing exercises, as we can practice them anytime and anywhere. Mark Krasnow, a professor of biochemistry at Stanford University conducted research in which he and his team found the scientific proof, why slow breathing can change the state of mind from anxious to calm. Apparently there is a set of nerves that is directly connected to the brain’s arousal centre:
“This liaison to the rest of the brain means that if we can slow breathing down, as we can do by deep breathing or slow controlled breaths, the idea would be that these neurons then don’t signal the arousal center, and don’t hyperactivate the brain. So you can calm your breathing and also calm your mind,” says Krasnow.
My go-to is what I call “balloon breathing” which is basically taking slow breaths inflating our tummies as if we were blowing up a balloon, and then slowly deflating it. I personally find it helpful to count and add a couple of counts to the outbreath: Breathing in 1, 2, 3, 4, breathing out, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 for example, as an extended out-breath supports the slowing down of breathing. You will find your own rhythm and what works for you. Especially for young children it is important that we explain techniques in an understandable and concrete manner.
A good way to teach “belly breathing” is letting children breathe with “breathing buddies” such as rubber ducks or teddies on their tummies. They can see the ducks rising up (swimming on the waves) with the in-breath and falling with the out-breath making the exercise visual and age appropriate. You can find further breathing and mindfulness exercises and resources in my book “Roots and Wings – Childhood needs a revolution”.
The important thing is that we recognise our children’s anxiety and empathise rather than tell them to calm down or not worry about it. If we address the “problem” consciously, we can help our children understand what anxiety is, what actually happens in our brains and bodies, and take myths and confusion away. We can teach them skills that will support them in coping better with anxiety when it arises and make it clear that anxiety is a normal and important part of everybody’s emotional make-up.
For more information on mindful parenting and education and a practical everyday approach that can be applied by anybody and tailored to your individual circumstances take a look at my new book “Roots and Wings – Childhood needs a revolution”, a handbook for parents and educators to promote positive change based on the principles of mindfulness.
Thanks so much for your interest and support! 😉 Alex
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