Anxiety in children can be difficult to manage, impacting social and emotional wellbeing and their ability to reach their full potential. Signs of anxiety in children may include stomach aches, headaches, rapid breathing, panic, avoidance, specific or situational stress and separation distress.
Anxiety triggers are mostly environmental but can also have biological causes. The brain’s amygdala plays an important role in assessing and processing emotions. As a threat detector the amygdala will initiate the fight/flight response to help keep us safe. This is important in human survival, however, for some individuals this response is over sensitive and the amygdala may trigger the fight/flight response when not needed, thus resulting in anxiety.
Coping strategies can help manage the biological stress response of the amygdala. Abdominal breathing has been found to calm the amygdala as well as reverse the rapid breathing response that compounds anxiety. Further relaxation strategies such as visualization or meditation can assist in sending calming chemicals to the brain. Once in a calmer state, a rational rather than emotional mindset can help us acknowledge the importance of the amygdala in keeping us safe whilst also re-appraising stress or perceived threats for what they are, thus reducing anxiety. For children a Catastrophe Scale and Emotional Thermometer are useful visual tools
to support this rational thinking.
In addition to relaxation, breathing and rational thinking strategies, other coping strategies can also help foster resilience in children by developing their capacity for emotional regulation and in turn manage anxiety. These can include fostering social networks, sports and exercise involvement, pursuit of hobbies, interests and passions and having positive distractions when needed. Self-soothing is a further means to emotional regulation and can involve soothing through our senses. This can involve visually appreciating and relaxing through the scenery when walking in a park, beach, or visually calming place, listening to relaxing music or meditation & sensory based or physical activities or exercise which reduce tension and promote calming chemicals or muscle relaxation.
By developing an understanding of anxiety, children can be encouraged to externalize from it and apply coping mechanisms to assist in refocussing on daily life. In my work with children, this process empowers them in managing their condition and assists in them reaching their full potential.
ProPsychology SA Adrian Terminello, Social Worker