Anxiety: Three Tips to Help Take Control
Anxiety is an important emotion that evolved for survival purposes. But we often experience it in overdrive, and it can hurt much more than it helps. These days, 18% of the adult population meets criteria for an anxiety disorder (reference: Facts & Statistics). While rates are lower in children, clinically significant anxiety remains one of the most common childhood mental illnesses, impacting about one out of every 14 kids (reference: Anxiety and depression in children: Get the facts).
The good news is that anxiety is often quite manageable. Read on to learn more about how anxiety works and to get some tips for both adults and children to help get it under control.
How Anxiety Is Supposed to Work
In order to understand how to navigate anxiety when it becomes problematic, it’s helpful to think about how anxiety is supposed to work. Anxiety serves as the emotional predecessor to fear. When we identify a threat in our environment, fear triggers our brain’s fight or flight response, which cues our body to mobilize – either in order to stand up to the threat and fight it directly, or to escape it by running out of dodge as fast as we can.
The function of anxiety is basically to be one step ahead of fear – it helps us identify the possibility of a threat in our future and motivates us to plan for it before the threat rears its ugly head. Anxiety about an upcoming test can mobilize you to prepare for it by, say, opening a book and studying. Anxiety about finances can mobilize you to make a budget and plan expenditures. In fact, studies show there is an optimal level of anxiety that makes us our most productive – enough to motivate us to action but not so much that we are paralyzed with fear.
So clearly anxiety itself is not the intrinsically the problem; in fact we need a certain level to be productive. The problem is 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 just how bad it might be. When anxiety responds too strongly, it can trigger that fight or flight response in ways that just end up making things worse (such as fighting social phobia by exploding at a peer, or fleeing from a big test by skipping school).
Tips for Handling Anxiety
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 (note that these tips 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 our muscles (cue muscle tension), and sweating; and decreasing digestion and excretion (cue stomach ache!). These physical changes are very 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 school play.
So when you notice that your body (or your child’s body) seems to be launching into hyperdrive in an unhelpful way, the following techniques can be helpful in bringing the physiological arousal back down to baseline:
Deep Breathing Exercises
The key is to breathe through your belly rather than your chest (this allows the breath to go deeper, which helps bring your arousal down. When you practice, put your hand on your belly to make sure you see it going up and down. Our arousal also decreases more on the exhale than the inhale, so try to spend as long as you can on the exhale. I find it helpful to count – inhale for 4, exhale for 6 (adjust up or down based on your lung capacity!).
- To make deep breathing engaging for kids, try one of these activities:
Mindfulness for Kids: Clever Breathing Exercises for Kids to Calm Down
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Follow these steps:
- Start with your hands – clench as hard as you can for 5 seconds, then release for 5 seconds, and repeat.
- Work your way through your body parts – tense and relax your arms, shoulders, face, stomach, buttocks, legs, and then feet.
Progressive muscle relaxation (or PMR) serves several functions – it helps encourage your muscles to relax in the moment, it helps train your brain to differentiate between tense and relaxed muscles in the long run, and it keeps you grounded and focused on the task at hand.
- 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 Pretend you are squeezing a whole lemon in your left hand. Squeeze it ha
Think about one of your favorite memories. To bring it to life, I encourage you to engage as many of your 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.
- For kids, practice leading them in a guided imagery practice:
Guided Imagery for Younger Children.
Tip #2: Retrain the Brain
Anxiety encourages avoidance, and avoidance encourages future anxiety. When we avoid something that makes us feel anxious (like skipping prom to avoid dancing in public), we immediately feel better, which tricks our brain into thinking we were right to have avoided our fear. The problem is that in the moment, our 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, we need to retrain our brain to think rationally about the risks involved. Practice asking yourself, and encouraging your children to ask themselves, 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 your answers to these questions, and use them to determine how likely your feared outcome actually is (it’s often way less likely than our brain tells 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”
A lot of children who experience anxiety tend to 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 anxiety or 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 your anxiety is getting in the way of your ability to function in any setting (such as work, school, home, or in relationships), it may be best to seek out the help of a mental health professional.