Back in my college years, a roommate of mine played a trick on me that left me paralyzed with fear. Upon entering the room, my mind registered something was different but I couldn’t quite place it. Looking around and not noticing what it was, I proceeded to put my laundry away. To do so, I had to open the closet door from which my roommate leapt out at me. I was so startled my body went into some form of dissonance where my brain and body were out of sync. Someone watching would have seen the laundry basket moving up and down as if I couldn’t decide whether to put it down or pick it up. Afterwards, this left us both in stitches.
For those struggling with anxiety, they know it is no laughing matter. People experiencing it are all too aware of the physical distress and the relentless thoughts pulling them out of the present and into the endless what if’s of the future. Anxiety itself is not the problem. Our fear response is hard wired in us to keep us vigilant and aware of danger that at times is even life threatening. Fear is a basic human emotion designed to provide us with information. Once this information is received, there are only three basic moves: freeze, flee or fight. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released to allow our bodies to prepare for the fight or to get away from it as quickly as possible or if completely flooded to freeze. In the case of being attacked by a grizzly bear, it is best to play dead so you are no longer seen as a threat.
Unfortunately, our brains can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is perceived to be real. One night while deep in sleep I had a dream, I was falling out of a tree. I flailed and hit the bed so hard it woke me up, heart pounding and there I was at home safe in my bed. While awake thinking about the possible negative outcomes, our mind and body often respond “as if” those outcomes are already occurring. This leads the person to a natural defense; avoid whatever it is that makes you feel that way.
It is normal to avoid. If you touch a burner and get burned, you want to avoid getting hurt again. This is often the healthy thing to do. With anxiety, it is natural to want to avoid the things that feel scary or uncomfortable; however it works differently with anxiety as the more you avoid it the scarier it becomes. If you address the problem initially is like a small puddle that you can easily jump over. If the feeling gets bigger and bigger, then it feels too big to jump over. With anxiety we need to take action.
But what do you do if it is your child who is paralyzed with anxiety? Parent’s also feel fear themselves about the negative outcomes that their child with anxiety will experience. If they avoid school, will they pass their classes? Will it impact their future? The parent’s fear often leads them to frustration where they attempt to plead, cajole, bribe or punish their child into action. This can result in a negative reaction in their child where a power struggle arises leaving both feeling powerless and defeated.
No one enjoys feeling that way! Here are a few ideas parents can try. These tools teach children ways to take action and lessen the likelihood of them using avoidance in the future.
1. Progressive muscle relaxation teaches the child how to recognize the level of tension in their body. It is a two step process where first the child tightens a muscle for a few seconds and then focuses on that muscle relaxing. Beginning at the top of the body and progressing down to the toes, muscles are tightened and then relaxed. A fun way to teach this to small children is by playing a game called “Spaghetti.” Parent and child practice getting rigid like uncooked spaghetti and holding this position for 10, 20, 30 seconds and increasing time with practice and attention and then becoming limp noodles like cooked spaghetti and having fun relaxing and going limp to the floor. This can be practiced multiple times.
2. Diaphragmatic breathing is a form of deep breathing where the person fills their lungs slowly and contracts their diaphragm. The belly fills like a balloon and then the person holds their breath for a few seconds. The air is then released slowly through pursed lips. This slow, deep breathing helps reverse the chemical reaction of the hormones released with anxiety and brings a sense of calm. A fun way to teach this to smaller children is by using bubbles. I like having fun competitions with trying to blow the longest and biggest bubble by taking a deep breath, holding it for a few seconds and blowing through pursed lips slowly to get the biggest bubble.
3. Five Senses is a way to help bring a person back into the present and it creates a grounding feeling. The person can use all five of their senses once triggered and feeling anxious to help bring them back to the present moment. Have your child look around and describe what they see with detail about shapes, colors and textures. Have your child choose a favorite scent and smell a favorite scented candle, food item or essential oil. Find an item they enjoy the feel of like a smooth blanket, stuffed animal, kinetic sand or bubbly water. Have your child eat something sweet, salty, or sour and focus on the taste as they chew slowly and savor it. Take a moment to listen to the sounds in the room and list as many as your child can hear or play soothing, quiet music or the sounds of nature.
4. Lattering is a form of breaking things down into smaller more manageable pieces. This could include breathing, five senses, being in the present, reaching out to a support person, and breaking school or work tasks into simple steps. Also, avoiding is rewarding because in the moment it feels better. Adding fun rewards for taking action can help make acting more rewarding. For smaller children, I like magic footprints where you trace your childs footprints and then when they come home from school there is a pathway of footprints to follow to a special snack or treat. Also, magic tree or box where once discovered it holds a special reward.
At times, there are things that can be structured differently at school, enlisting a school psychologist or teachers understanding and help can help mitigate a child’s anxiety especially if it is around another child’s behavior, not being able to use the restroom or with performance anxiety.
For parents, to understand better a child’s emotions and to lessen frustration and anger responses, I like Dan Siegel’s work one of which is the Whole Brain Child that explains why it is so difficult for the child to regulate emotion and gives ideas for how parents can learn this and then help teach their child mindsight which is similar to mindfulness.
Anxiety is normal for all of us yet there are times when it takes on a life of its own and it seems our bodies stay in fight or flight or freeze or flee all the time. When this is the case, seeking out the help of a licensed professional is recommended as these tools are powerful and effective yet require patience and practice. Trained therapists are available to assist you and your child out of the automatic responses and into choosing a calmer, more present action.