How to reduce anxiety in your children – Part 2 of 5 – Understanding anxiety and its impact on the body

Part 2 - How to reduce anxiety in your children - Understanding anxiety and its impact on your body

This article is Part 2 of 5 in the five-part series on How to reduce your anxiety in children and we’re going to learn a bit more about understanding anxiety and its impact on the body. If you missed the introduction, you can find Part 1 here, which talks about why we sought extra help for our anxious child.

So in this article, we will be talking about:

Before you start

Before you start working on reducing your child’s anxiety levels, it is imperative to think about what it is that you want to work on and achieve. Do you know what your child is worried about exactly? Do they worry about going to the shops? Or walking to school by themselves?


Our first job at the very beginning of the Multi-Family Anxiety Group Sessions (MFAGS) was to discuss with our child what it was that we wanted to achieve from each session, as well as address the biggest worries. Listing these concerns and goals is a great way to get an all-around idea of what you’d like to achieve in the long run. For example, we wanted to find a way to help Aron (8) go to sleep relaxed every night, and this meant addressing the issues he had before going to sleep and finding ways to help him relax before bedtime.

Don’t forget that anxiety is normal, but when children are anxious, they feel helpless, and their worries can feel very real to them. Of course, it is challenging to watch them go through these worries because you feel helpless too. But you have to be keen to manage their concerns. And, if you feel anxious about certain places or situations yourself, then you must correct your behaviour, so you can help your child alter their behaviour too.

It is not easy to realise how stressful life can be with kids every day. So, sometimes taking a spa day, having your nails done, going to the gym, or meeting your friend can provide you with the chance to take a step back and destress from your daily tasks. You have multiple hats on all the time and numerous relationships that you need to tend to. You also naturally put your children first. But, to look after them, you need to concentrate on yourself – a happy parent is a happy family!

We also wanted to help Aron express his worries verbally so his concerns could be discussed during Worry Time before starting a new day. More information on postponing your worries to worry time can be found in Part 4 of 5.

What is anxiety?

It’s always best to start with having a good understanding of what anxiety is, and there are lots of ways that you can describe and define anxiety. We went around the group and explained what we thought was anxiety. Some of the words that came up were:

  • Worried
  • Afraid
  • Scared
  • Panicky
  • Stressed
  • Fidgety
  • Cross/Angry
  • Fierce
  • Excited
  • Curious
  • Normal

Anxiety is essentially a worry or a concern, and one of the most important things to remember is that feeling anxious is normal. We all get worried about things, even us parents. Sometimes our worries stress us out too much, and we are unable to handle them. And for children who are unable to verbalise, understand or compartmentalise these feelings, their anxiety levels can reach unbearable heights and impact on their daily living. It’s when anxiety stops us from doing the things that we want to do, it takes over our day, and it becomes overwhelming that help is needed to understand where this anxiety is coming from and how we can work with ourselves and our children to ensure we manage and reduce this anxiety naturally.

“Everybody feels anxious sometimes. In fact, a little bit of worry can be good for you. The important thing is not to let anxiety get out of hand and take over your life. You need to stay in charge.” Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust

Understanding anxiety and its impact on the body

During our first session, we were provided with a thermometer illustration so we could rate where our anxiety levels were when we came into the group and where it was when we left the group, to find out whether our anxiety levels had changed after each session.

Anxiety thermometer from Step2 CAMHS MFAGS
Anxiety thermometer provided by Step2 CAMHS

The idea behind the thermometer activity was to tune into our anxiety and acknowledge that we have varying degrees. The higher up you get on the thermometer, towards the red part, the higher your anxiety is. The lower down you get on the thermometer – the green part – the less anxious you are.

Aron stated at the very beginning of the session that he felt very anxious and placed his name on the left of the highest red part. I didn’t feel quite so anxious, so I labelled my name towards the yellow section. By the end of the session, my name had moved down to the green part, and Aron’s name had moved down to the yellow part. So talking about anxiety in the session had eased both of our anxiety levels. I further discussed this reduction with Aron at home and reiterated that if we knew what anxiety was, we would have a shot at reducing our anxiety levels. Aron agreed and felt that it was a good idea to continue with these sessions.

What causes or contributes to anxiety?

There isn’t one specific thing that contributes to anxiety – it could be a combination of different situations and places that causes you to have these anxious feelings. Below are some factors that can cause anxiety:

It’s in your genes

Very often there is a generic link and a family history of anxiety, namely, neuroticism, which can pass on to our children. [1]

Screen time / social media

People are becoming more aware of social media’s significant impact on anxiety in children because very often social media is instant and consuming, especially as children grow into their teenage years.

Stress

Stress has a major impact on anxiety [2], and lots of things can add to your stress levels. Imagine if you have a bucket and you place a few things in that bucket every so often. Suddenly that bucket starts to overflow, and just one more thing can tip that bucket over, causing high anxiety.

A traumatic event

Traumatic events can trigger high anxiety levels [3], especially when it is not manageable at the time. Traumatic events include a bereavement, which is a trigger for high anxiety, as well as if your child is being bullied.

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety occurs where the child experiences high levels of anxiety when their parent or child leaves the room. Separation anxiety can be traumatic for a child, whatever their age.

Our personalities

Sometimes having high anxiety can just be your personality [4] and it makes up who you are. This means you have to work harder on managing your anxiety levels because it can often become difficult to distinguish when you experience anxiety and when you feel normal.

Learning the behaviour from others

If you are surrounded by people who are anxious, then you can often pick up on those signals, or you learn their behaviour. When you’re anxious, you behave in a certain way and very often that behaviour can be learned. A younger sibling can often pick up on the bad things that the older sibling is doing, and if the older sibling is anxious about something, the little one can pick up that anxiety through learned behaviour. You can find more information on thoughts and behaviours in Part 3 of 5.

Life changes

You may experience significant life changes that cause you anxiety, like moving house, a divorce, or past experiences that have led you to worry about similar situations that happen now.

Try to think about where you think your anxiety comes from and how it impacts on your daily life. Did the divorce cause you to have separation anxiety as a child, which your child has picked up from you as learned behaviour? Don’t forget that anxiety can form as a result of some or all of the above factors, not just one.

Where we feel anxiety

It is useful to understand where we feel anxiety in our bodies, as we all experience anxiety differently. Next time you feel anxious, listen to your body and try to recognise where you feel anxiety. Do you experience funny changes in your body? Ask your child too. I usually feel anxiety in my tummy, and my body temperature heats up, which leads me to go to the toilet. Other ways you can feel anxiety in your body are:

  • A sore throat
  • A headache
  • Sweaty hands
  • You feel short-tempered
  • Butterflies in the tummy
  • Tummy Ache
  • You feel physically sick
  • Your heart flutters or beats very fast
  • You are unable to eat
  • You can’t swallow
  • You feel panicky
  • Your blood pressure rises
  • You have shaky legs
  • You experience sweaty armpits
  • You experience little tics

Aron says he feels anxiety everywhere in his body. This is his visualisation on his gingerbread man, which was kindly provided by Step2 CAMHS during the MFAGS.

What does anxiety feel like in my body? Gingerbread man
Gingerbread man – What does anxiety feel like in my body? Step2 CAMHS

Problem-solving your worries

Children are not good at tolerating uncertainty, but we must teach them that life isn’t always guaranteed and that it is ok when they have anxious feelings. The gingerbread man is so important because children need to recognise what’s happening to them and that nothing terrible is going to happen when they feel anxiety. Sometimes they must sit with these feelings and learn that things do get better with time. Often lots of little things can maintain their anxiety, and it’s about trying to tease those feelings out and getting them to talk through what they’re thinking to sort out their worries head-on.

It is also vital for you as a parent to do the same as you are a role model and it is incredible how we can teach children how to manage their anxiety by merely setting an example. How do you deal with your anxiety when you are worried about something?

Some of the methods Step2 CAMHS taught us was problem-solving our worries. If you’re worried about something, what do you do? What is the concern and how do you encourage children (like Aron) who don’t always find it easy to express what their worry is to get it out in the open?

Sometimes we need to change our language to help them talk through their worries. But first, before we do that we need to understand what happens to our brain when we experience anxiety.

The brain box – what happens to our brain when we experience anxiety

Let’s compare our brains to a computer.

The first part of the computer is the motherboard. This is the most important part of the computer because it keeps it powered for the most basic part. If we compare the motherboard to our bodies, the most important part of our body is our brain.

The second part is the hard disk drive, which stores memory on the computer. We store memories in our brain through our five senses: see, smell, hear, touch, and taste.

The third part is the processor, which deals with all the complicated bits of information and high-level functions within the computer. This is the clever thinking part of our brain and allows us to deal with complicated situations while analysing information continuously. All these parts are connected to each other. So, in summary:

Computer

Body

Motherboard

Brain

Hard disk drive

Our five senses

Processor

The clever thinking part of our brain

Let’s think about an example where we experience anxiety.

You’re in a room, and all of a sudden a big lion enters the room. What do you do? Do you sit around and use the Processor part of your brain to think about a way out? Or do you, without thinking, find a way to get out of the room and into safety? It would most likely be the latter, right?

In reality, if a lion walked into a room, we wouldn’t have time to think – we would just need to get out and away to safety, to save ourselves – this is our survival technique. If there is a real danger in our environment, our survival instincts kick in, and the processor part or the clever thinking part of our brain automatically turns off. We do not have time to think about what to do. This is called:

The fight or flight response

When we experience a threat, we either fight the problem or we run away from the problem, and in this instance, in our lion example, we chose the flight option, i.e. to run away from the lion.

Let’s think about a more relational example.

You’re standing by the side of the road, you look left and right, you wait until you find the perfect time to cross when no cars are driving by, and then you cross the street. All of a sudden a car starts to come toward you. You get panicky, and you run to the other side of the road.

Your clever thinking part of your brain – or the Processor – turned off automatically because there was no time to think about whether to cross or not, so your survivals instincts knew to get away to safety. If you had your clever thinking part on in both of the above examples, and you started to question what would happen, the lion would eat you up, and the car would run you over!

So, it’s good that our brains work in that way to give us the best chance at survival, right?

Yes, but not always.

Unfortunately, our brain can’t tell the difference between a real threat and what we perceive as being a threat. So, if you feel anxious, your clever thinking part of your brain turns off because the brain thinks that you are being threatened. For example:

  • What if I fall over in front of everyone and they all laugh at me?
  • What if I don’t speak to anyone and I feel lonely?
  • What if I end up with no friends on the first day of school?
  • What if I don’t get the job I always wanted?
  • What if I call the wrong answer out in class?

These are all worries, but the processor part of your brain isn’t helping you to get through these worries. It’s turning off and triggering off the flight or fight response. So what you need to practice is reconnecting that processor so that you can analyse and rationalise the non-real threatening situations from the real threats. And, of course, to do this, it involves techniques and practising every day. The more you practice, the more you can connect your processor quickly. But, the trick here is to not practice them when you are starting to disconnect, you need to practice every day while you are calm and in control so that it kicks in when you feel like you are starting to disengage. Remember, if you have no clever thinking part activated, you can’t think about practicing!

Think about this situation with your child. When your child is worried or anxious, how easy is it to reason when them when they’re in that state? It’s not simple, is it? It’s because their processor is not connected, so they’re never going to hear what you are saying. You have to wait until they calm down before they can listen and understand what you are trying to tell them. So practising these techniques together helps you both reconnect your processors quickly.

So, how do you reconnect your processor part quickly?

Breathing exercises

Square breathing exercises are a great way to calm the breath and reconnect the processor part of your brain.

Square breathing
Square breathing sheet provided by Step2 CAMHS during the MFAGS

How to practice square breathing

  1. Either print out the image above or imagine a square in your head
  2. Start in the top left corner of the square and breathe in while moving along the top side of the square, until you get to the right corner
  3. Breathe out as you move down the right side of the square to the bottom right corner
  4. Breathe in as you move along the bottom side of the square to the bottom left corner
  5. And breathe out when you move up the left side of the square, back to the first left corner
  6. Repeat as many times as needed to calm your breath. If you imagine a square, no one will know that you’re doing this!

Practice square breathing with your child when they first wake up or when they go to sleep – it’s a great tool to calm their breathing down and settle before bedtime.

Feather breathing

Another breathing technique which works really well, especially on younger ones is feather breathing. You hold a feather in front of you and blow as gently as possible to try not to move the feather. This method of breathing really does work to control your breath and calm you down. While breathing on the feather, notice how gently you have to blow for the feather to move.

It is important to practice square or feather breathing all the time. Find one that works best for you and your child, and practice, practice, practice!

Laying a teddy on your tummy

Another great way for your child to relax their breath before sleep is to place a teddy on their belly and ask them to watch the teddy move up and down as they breathe in and out. This helps them a lot to relax before bedtime.

Relaxation stories

Relaxation stories are great to read out before bedtime as the stories involve breathing techniques that your child can follow before sleep or even before tackling the rest of the day. You can find great one-page relaxation scripts, from www.relaxedkids.com, and you can download stories on devices too. These stories are aimed at kids, and it equally teaches them how to do it as you read through the story.

Here are some examples:

Alice in Wonderland relaxation story from www.relaxedkids.com
Alice in Wonderland
Big Balloon relaxation story from relaxedkids.com
Big Balloon
Cinderella relaxation story from relaxedkids.com
Cinderella
Sleeping Beauty relaxation story from relaxedkids.com
Sleeping Beauty
Relaxing on the beach relaxation story from relaxedkids.com
Relaxing on the Beach

While reading the relaxation stories

  1. Ask your child to close their eyes as you read the story out as calmly and slowly as possible.
  2. You can do it in the morning when you wake up or just before bed

Remember, If you don’t relax, you don’t know when you are tense either so it is essential to try these breathing and relaxation techniques to calm your breathing down and reconnect that clever thinking part of your brain so that you can work through your worries together with your child.

In the next article, Part 3 of 5, we will be discussing what maintains anxiety and how to take your thoughts to court. Click here for the next article in the series.

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5573560/
  2. https://www-cambridge-org.ezproxy.herts.ac.uk/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/7C1B81389E1F17D50310A42DF8DF32AF/S0954579417000372a.pdf/impact_of_life_stress_on_adult_depression_and_anxiety_is_dependent_on_gender_and_timing_of_exposure.pdf
  3. https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-244X-14-6
  4. https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.herts.ac.uk/science/article/pii/S0191886910005532
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Leyla Preston (575 Posts)

Leyla Preston is the owner and Editor of Motherhood Diaries global magazine for parents. Leyla is a busy mother of two even busier boys; Aron, 8, and Aidan, 6. When Leyla isn’t feeding, managing a gazillion tasks or cleaning the infinite mess at home, she is busy working on this magazine and a new cooking channel coming very soon – no rest for the wicked! You can follow Leyla on Twitter (@M_Diaries) or join the busy Motherhood Diaries Facebook group where all mums get together and share stories and solutions with one another: https://www.facebook.com//groups/motherhooddiaries/