The function of anxiety is to help us stay one step ahead of fear. It does that by alerting us to a possible threat so we can plan for it before it rears its head. For example, anxiety about an upcoming test ideally may motivate a child to study for the exam. In fact, research shows there is an optimal level of anxiety that motivates us to act, yet is not so great that we become paralyzed by fear.
Problems arise when there is a mismatch between the intensity of the anxiety we feel and the actual risk of the anticipated threat. The most common mental mistake our brains make is overestimating the likelihood of a threat and how bad it might be. When anxiety responds too strongly, it can trigger the fight or flight response in ways that make things worse (such as fighting social phobia by exploding at a peer, or fleeing from a big test by skipping school).
When anxiety gets out of hand, we need to recalibrate our bodies and our minds. To help you and your child do this, we’ve put together the following tips, which are applicable for both adults and children.
Tip #1: Bring Down the Arousal
Anxiety is a physiological emotion. Our bodies mobilize for action by quickening our breath; increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow to the muscles (cue muscle tension), and sweating; and decreasing digestion and excretion (cue stomachache). These physical changes are helpful if you’re about to get into a big fight or you need to run away from a predator, but they’re not so great when you have a big presentation or a role in the school play.
When you notice that your child’s body is launching into hyper-drive in an unhelpful way, the following techniques can help bring the physiological arousal back down to baseline:
Deep Breathing Exercises. The key is to breathe through the belly rather than the chest. When practicing, put a hand on the belly to make sure you see it going up and down. Arousal also decreases more on the exhale than the inhale, so spend as long as you can on the exhale. It’s helpful to inhale for 4, exhale for 6, and adjust up or down based on lung capacity.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) serves several functions: it encourages the muscles to relax in the moment, helps train the brain to differentiate between tense and relaxed muscles in the long run, and it keeps one grounded and focused on the task at hand.
Start with your hands. Clench as hard as you can for 5 seconds, then release for 5 seconds, and repeat. Then work your way through your body parts using the same count: tense and relax your arms, shoulders, face, stomach, buttocks, legs, and feet.
Positive Imagery. Think about a favorite memory. To bring it to life, engage as many senses as possible. Pick a snapshot in time from the memory to focus on, and think about what you were seeing in that moment, what you were hearing, what you could smell, what you could taste, and what you could touch. The more multisensory the imagery, the more you activate different parts of your brain, and the more effectively they work together to override the anxiety response.
Tip #2: Retrain the Brain
Anxiety encourages avoidance, and avoidance encourages future anxiety. When you avoid something that makes you feel anxious (like skipping prom to avoid dancing in public), you immediately feel better, which tricks the brain into thinking you were right to have avoided your fear. The problem is that in the moment your brain doesn’t think about long-term consequences of avoidance (if you keep avoiding social activities, you might lose out on friendships and experience loneliness).
To break the avoidance cycle, you need to retrain your brain to think rationally about the risks involved. Encourage your child to ask herself the following questions:
- What am I expecting to happen?
- What evidence do I have that it’s going to happen?
- What has happened before?
- How many times has it happened before?
- What has happened to other people I know?
- What else might happen?
Write down the answers to these questions, and use them to determine how likely the feared outcome actually is (it’s often way less likely than your brain tells you it is).
Next, make a plan:
- What’s the worst thing that could happen?
- What would be so bad about that?
- What would I do in that situation?
- What is a coping thought I can have if it does happen?
Tip #3: Beware the “Reassurance Seeker”
Children who experience anxiety often seek reassurance from their parents to help them feel better. This is fine here and there, but sometimes children accidentally attribute their safety to the fact that a parent gave them reassurance (they think, “Well, I’m only okay because mom/dad told me I would be…”). To help them feel more autonomous in managing their anxiety, start by asking them the above questions (and practice having them generate the answers themselves). Then, over time, encourage them to start asking themselves the questions.
Keep in mind, when trying to recalibrate your child’s anxiety, that it took a long time for the anxiety to build to the point that it got out of hand. Therefore, it may take a long time for it to return to baseline.
The more you practice the above skills, the more opportunities your brain has to “relearn” how to anticipate outcomes more accurately and respond more effectively. So be patient, and keep up the hard work!
When It’s Too Much
Sometimes, though, even if we try all the tricks in the book, anxiety can just be too much to handle. If anxiety is getting in the way of your child’s ability to function in any setting (school, home, or in relationships), it may be best to seek out the help of a mental health professional.
Following are helpful resources to help bring down the arousal to baseline:
- To make deep breathing engaging for kids, try one of these activities:
Mindfulness for Kids: Clever Breathing Exercises for Kids to Calm Down
- Here is a script you can read with your kids to make PMR fun and accessible for all ages: Relaxation Script for Younger Children Hands & Arms.
- Use Guided Imagery for Younger Children to lead your child in positive imagery
This article is adapted with permission from the Sasco River Center in CT. Caroline Segal, a psychotherapist at the Sasco River Center, specializes in the treatment of child and adolescent anxiety, depression, trauma, and behavioral issues.