I have a lot of conversations about anxiety. As a psychotherapist and counsellor, I am trained to support people who are struggling with anxiety. I know about how it impacts your body and how it manifests in life. Most of my clients come to me with anxiety-related issues. So you would have thought when my 11 year old daughter started showing signs of anxiety I might be able to help her just nip it in the bud…just like that…oh and at the same time maintain a calm and patient attitude...funny how that wasn't the case!
She started having stomach problems and feeling sick often. We had visits to the doctor with no answers. I knew that worrying about feeling sick when she didn’t feel “safe” (which was mainly when she was out of the house and not with me) was having a big impact on her symptoms. I also had strong feeling that it wasn’t only anxiety – that there was a physical issue to do with her stomach as well.
We had a plan for the physical bit - but what about the worry? We noticed that the tummy ache and sickness would come on if I was going out or if she was meant to be going somewhere unknown or where she couldn’t control her environment. School became a source of worry - “what happens if the teacher doesn’t believe me”? “What happens if I feel sick in the car?” A lot of 'what ifs'. She didn’t want to go out or me to go out and her sickness would often cause me to cancel my plans.
From my work as a therapist, I know that anxiety in children can make everyone feel helpless. Anxiety is a primitive survival response. When we feel unsafe or we perceive there to be a threat, our wonderful healthy brain tries to protects us. Avoidance is one of those protection mechanisms. The amygdala is the part of the brain that has the job of keeping us feeling safe. It scans for threat and makes a quick decision about whether to avoid or keep going. If the amygdala decides there is a threat, it will flood the body with the fight or flight neurochemicals and the rational part of our brain goes off-line so it doesn’t get in the way.
This is why, when our kids are in the midst of anxiety, saying “everything is fine, you are fine” just doesn’t work. Avoidance of a situation that the amygdala tells us is a threat can seem like the best idea. We avoid and then we feel better and that gets logged in the “that worked to help me feel better” filing cabinet in our brain….to be used again. It's not the right message.
So we knew we had to come up with a plan - how to approach the situation from a physical and emotional point of view. Hard to separate the two really, particularly as anxiety can feel like exactly the same as the symptoms my daughter was experiencing initially. I wanted to share with you how we approached it in the hope that it will be useful to anyone who is experiencing a similar struggle.
Some tips and information that we found helpful to remember.
Give up the notion of “getting it right” all the time. You won’t always say or do the right thing - just do your best. That’s parenting I guess.
Try to understand the message behind the emotion. Anxiety shows up in response to not feeling safe. The question then becomes - how can I help my child to feel safe? What is he or she actually feeling scared of and how can we come up with a plan to alleviate those fears?
Remember that their brain is just doing its job. It's just being a bit over sensitive - overestimating the threat and underestimating their ability to deal with it. This for me was the hardest bit. How to help them feel that you get it whilst not buying into the story of “I can’t handle that”. Brave behaviour makes them feel stronger. Avoidance makes anxiety stronger.
Anxiety needs urgency to keep it alive. Try and slow things down. Give yourself as much time as you can to talk and be there - rushing makes things way worse.
My three step plan - it doesn't always work but I have a plan at least.
Listen and validate. Just listen and find the feeling and let them know you get it. That they are scared and why. Sit with it. This will slow things down. You need to be slow and calm and hopefully they will naturally match this. This will give time for the logical and rational part of their brain to come back on-line.
Gently challenge the story. Mention times that they were ok, that they were brave. All the times when nothing bad happened. Hold the belief that they have everything they need inside of them to get through this. Faith in them and faith that everything will be ok. They are safe and you are sure of that.
Help them come up with a plan - so even if what they fear comes true they know what do. Things that have worked before. My sister in law taught my daughter a yoga pose that helped get rid of tummy aches. Not the thing to do during class perhaps, but she loved it. Belly breathing is like a super power with anxiety. Not only does it slow things down but it balances your nervous system. Breathing in for the count of 5 and out for 9 three times is magical and gets that logical rational part of the brain back on-line.
Sometimes avoidance will win. I know avoidance behaviours are not helpful so at the beginning of all this I think I went too far the other way. I eventually learned that I needed to pick my battles and sometimes the things that we “had to go to” were not actually things we had to do at all. They were things that I wanted to do or that I felt she “should do”. More about me than her really.
I just had to tune into my instinct and trust that I would know when to push a bit and then to let it be. This was hard and I didn’t get it right all of the time. When we did avoid things there was always an attitude that we would keep trying. I have memories of sitting in the school reception trying to coax her in through tears and upset. Sometimes she went but a few times I just felt that it wasn’t the right thing to do. Her upset had become too much and we needed to take a time out and reset. But always our goal was to get in the next day or that afternoon.
Create some space to talk about other things that may be going on in their lives. I had to slow down my own life for a while and make sure she had the space and time to share about friendship issues and other stuff.
We have some mindfulness exercise cards that we used to do at bedtime but then fell out of the routine. We've started those again and it helped so much.
Patience and calm is the aim but I don't always manage it. Anxiety can be frustrating for all concerned and you are only human. If you get frustrated - reset and start again.
Remember you are not alone. 1 in 5 tweens experience anxiety. Its normal and it doesn’t mean it will be around for ever. Anxiety is all based in the future - try to stay present yourself. One day at a time.
We found out that my daughter's stomach problems were linked to a diet issue. To be clear we by no means “nailed it” but she is feeling better and now going to school without anxiety. It's taken time but it's definitely progress.
Anna Linton, psychotherapist, counsellor and coach, specialises in anxiety and trauma, at works as at Rowan House Health and Wellbeing.