Anxiety can be a normal part of life. But for some children and adults it takes over and wreaks havoc on their mind and body. Leaving the individual paralyzed by fear and unable to focus on anything other than the anxious feelings, catastrophic thoughts and physical symptoms that have suddenly swallowed them whole; a person is left to wonder if he/she has gone crazy, suffered a heart attack or had his/her brain hijacked by outside forces. Yes, anxiety can feel that foreign and overwhelmingly invasive to a person, big or small.
Anxiety is a defense mechanism meant to keep us safe from harm. Many of you are familiar with the fight/flight response – the body’s automatic physiological reaction to a danger or threat. In a nutshell, our brain is gearing up our body for a struggle or an escape. One sneaky little problem: the brain can’t differentiate between a real threat and a perceived threat. So the anxious child or adult turns on his automatic, built-in fight/flight response system, soaking himself in stress hormones and the body reacts as it should; however, the gears remain in overdrive and the brain forgets to turn off the switch. And this is how a person lives with anxiety: on high alert with a view that benign situations are actually opportunities for danger even though no real threat exists.
If you think about the brain in terms of mechanics, you can work around the machine and learn to short-circuit the wiring. Neuroplasticity is a fascinating topic in the field of neurobiology, which essentially works on the premise that the brain is plastic and, therefore, malleable to reconstruction. Studies have proven the brain throughout life can grow, change and alter itself through thoughts, emotions, exercise and experience.
I look at Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy as the fundamentals of neuroplasticity at work. CBT is a brief, directive form of therapy that is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and, ultimately, our behavior and if we can reframe our thoughts; we can change the way we feel and act in our lives. With that being said, let’s look at five options to reduce and eliminate anxiety in your child or loved one.
Normalize thoughts: Children need to understand that anxious thoughts and intrusive thoughts are a normal part of being human. What differentiates an anxious person from a non-anxious person is the simple fact that the intrusive thoughts create uncomfortable feelings in the person with anxiety. They begin to fixate (ruminate/obsess) on a thought that in regular circumstances would pass through the brain like a train running through a station. The triggers are unique to the individual.
Feel free to read my article on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder to learn more. A technique often employed by therapists is thought immersion. Essentially, you help the child invite in the troubling thoughts until they no longer view the thought as a threat. Understanding his/her brain is a separate entity and something he can control helps give the child permission to steer the neural ship. Simply knowing they can slowly breathe through any troubling thought aids the child. Learning to understand that a thought is not reality can be immensely helpful for the child who feels they are wrong for thinking “bad thoughts.” Normalize, normalize, normalize any thoughts that create anxiety.
Keep the hands busy. The art of hand movement creates anxiety reduction. Your brain cannot worry and write at the same time. It is the act of writing that actually pulls your brain out of worry mode. Technically, you are forcing your brain to switch gears.
The same can be true with any activity that engages your hands and your mind. The activities could be endless: knitting, writing, drawing, painting, gardening, or playing basketball. The idea is to recognize the anxiety, acknowledge and then actively engage the brain in another activity.
Exposure Therapy. I am quite sure you have heard of this specific type of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy but probably more in relation to the fear of spiders and rats. Exposure therapy works to “expose” an individual to the feared situation/subject while utilizing calming techniques with a trained professional to desensitize the person. In other words, an anxious child will avoid situations that create anxiety. Exposure therapy helps the child to confront the avoidance behavior and lay new wiring in the brain. A person must learn to fear and, therefore, the same person can unlearn it. It just takes a bit more work.
Exercise, exercise, exercise. Not a whole lot to say here. All research and experience points to daily exercise as one of the greatest treatments for anxiety reduction. And there is a bonus: you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete! You just need a few minutes of hard output everyday. Some say as little as 5-10 minutes. Can’t get your Jane Fonda on? No problem. A brisk 20-30 minute walk will do the job. It reduces stress hormones, creates new brain neurons, releases feel-good endorphins and restores normal sleep patterns. I need not say more!
Breathing. Yeah, I know. Genius, right? But breathing has its place in therapeutic healing and there is a reason why it is so effective. It comes down to the automatic response we all have except this time we can utilize it for good rather than evil. I’ll let Harvard explain: One way to reduce stress and anxiety is “to invoke the relaxation response, through a technique first developed in the 1970s at Harvard Medical School by cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson. The relaxation response is a state of profound rest that can be elicited in many ways, including meditation, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation. Breath focus is a common feature of several techniques that evoke the relaxation response. The first step is learning to breathe deeply. Shallow breathing limits the diaphragm’s range of motion. The lowest part of the lungs doesn’t get a full share of oxygenated air. That can make you feel short of breath and anxious.” They go on to give you an example of what you should aim to do. Don’t worry if you get it wrong. It takes a little practice.
First steps. “Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down. First, take a normal breath. Then try a deep breath: Breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as you fill your lungs. Let your abdomen expand fully. Now breathe out slowly through your mouth (or your nose, if that feels more natural).”
Breath focus in practice. “Once you’ve taken the steps above, you can move on to regular practice of controlled breathing. As you sit comfortably with your eyes closed, blend deep breathing with helpful imagery and perhaps a focus word or phrase that helps you relax.”
Today’s take-away: Before you head off to tackle the world, you would do yourself a whole lot of good to include these foods/drinks in your child’s diet especially if they struggle with anxiety: wild Alaskan salmon, walnuts, ground flax seeds, dark greens, avocado, eggs, turkey, oatmeal, chamomile tea, green tea, small amounts of 70% dark chocolate, and berries.
And while you are adding anxiety-reducing foods, go ahead and take away: caffeine, refined sugar, simple carbohydrates, and alcohol – Food and drinks known to jack up your anxiety.
On a side note, I strongly believe medication for anxiety only worsens anxiety over time and can lead to addiction issues. There are too many simple and sometimes inexpensive ways to combat even the worst of the disorder. It is highly treatable with natural interventions. So get to work on restoring the inner calm and the anxiety will melt away without medication.