June 2021

How the Body Responds to Anxiety

Now we know that our child’s brain rightly triggers their body to prepare to survive when it thinks they’re faced with danger. The amygdala sets off a hormonal response that sets off your child’s body alarm system, which results in the following symptoms:

Dilated pupils: This lets in light so that they can scan their environment for potentially dangerous details but also gives them tunnel vision. That means they can’t see what’s going on in their peripheral vision.

Rapid heartbeat: The heart is moving oxygen into the bloodstream so that the body has energy to MOVE in whatever way is most likely to guarantee survival.

Jittery limbs: Some people call it “jelly legs” but hands and bodies can shake, too. Flooded with adrenaline, your child’s body is primed to run or fight.

Cold hands: As blood rushes away from the limbs to protect the important organs, your child’s hands or feet might get cold. They may also look pale.

Nauseous or hurting belly: Stomach acid starts to churn in response to all of those stress hormones and kids might begin gulping air as their body attempts to get more oxygen. They may suddenly (and desperately) need to use the bathroom because their brain is telling the body to drop some weight so they can run that much faster if they need to escape.

Shallow breathing: The brain knows it needs oxygen so not only does it speed up the heart but it also tells the lungs to start moving faster to get more air in.

Rashes or other allergy symptoms: Yup, that strange rash your child is getting might be linked to their anxiety. Kids with lots of anxiety may be more prone to colds, too, because their body is so focused on fighting danger it doesn’t have the bandwidth to also fight infections.

Lump in the throat and headache: All of that nervous tension throughout one’s body can cause other problems, too, including headaches or a tightness in your child’s throat making it hard for them to swallow or talk.

Do you recognize any of these in your or your child’s experience of anxiety?

Anxiety Fear Cycle

The Anxiety Fear Cycle is a perpetual motion machine. When a child sees a thing they interpret as dangerous their brain sets off a fear response to get their body ready to run or defend itself. Those fear hormones start making their body feel wriggly or nauseous or jittery. This is a very smart way for a body to react in the presence of danger! Flooded with fear hormones, that child is ready to fight, flight or freeze — they are ready to survive! Good job, body! Once the danger has passed, the body calms down and the child can recover.

If that child is someone who is anxiety-prone — if they are someone who is hardwired to see danger in ordinary events — then they will keep setting off that body response and they won’t get a chance to recover. They will stay elevated and on high-alert, exacerbating their already finely tuned survival system.

A change in the daily routine? Uh-oh! Danger!!!

An exam at school that day? Uh-oh! Danger!!!

Their favorite shirt that they wanted to wear is in the wash? Uh-oh! Danger!!!

And so their brain learns very quickly to be super sensitive to potential danger, running right to elevated fear and keeping the body prepared to do whatever it takes to survive. That’s how you end up with a child who never seems to come down, who always seems ready to flip out over any little thing.

Think about how you feel on days when there’s something extra going on like an upcoming move or a task overdue at work. Aren’t you more jittery, irritable and tense? If you’re prone to anxiety yourself then you especially know how one looming concern can color the rest of your functioning.

That’s what’s happening to your anxious child, too.

Their feelings are legitimate — they ARE caught up in a fear response loop — but the danger is NOT real.

It’s so frustrating to parents because we can see that there is no danger. We can appreciate that routines need to be flexible. We know how hard they studied for the exam. We can see that the red shirt may be in the wash but the green shirt is right here, fresh and clean. But they are awash in stress/fear hormones, stuck in fight or flight or freeze.

As parents we need to do two things — help them confront (not avoid) their fears and help them learn to calm and care for their body until that fear response isn’t quite so sensitive.

Anxiety and the Myth of the Near Miss

Most of the time we take what we learn about the world and apply that moving forward. Consider the first time you have to give a report to the whole class. Nerve wracking, right? Maybe you don’t sleep well the night before, imagining all the terrible scenarios! Then you give the report and you survive! It’s fine! It’s over! Maybe next time giving the report won’t be so difficult.

Now consider the child with a social anxiety disorder. The parents call the teacher and ask if they can come sit in the back of the classroom just to help their child feel safe giving the report. The teacher, understandably concerned about supporting their students, agrees. The child gives the report and they survive! It’s fine! It’s over! But now they think it’s because their parent was there.

They say to themselves, “Whoa, I very nearly bombed! If it weren’t for my mom in the back of the classroom that would have been a disaster!”

Success doesn’t build on itself for the anxious child; success is the exception to the rule of disaster.

It’s tricky because for some kids having a parent in the back of the classroom is exactly the bridge they need to do it alone next time; a lot of times hand-holding helps. But for a child who is prone to more severe anxiety or an anxiety disorder, this is going to make them more stuck.

We think, “I will help this once” and instead we’ve created a new rule that we always show up in the classroom when they have to give a report.

This is how we get trapped in our children’s anxieties. Good intentions that go awry.

If you feel trapped that’s a clear sign that your family could use some help getting unstuck. And help is available. Feel free to schedule a consult with me to learn more about what I offer.

Why are kids so easily scared?

When I taught preschool getting over grates on our walks was an effort. Our school was on the edge of downtown so our walks took us across parking lots and sidewalks and inevitably over storm sewer grates. Half the kids would stop to holler at the Ninja Turtles (it was the early 90s and Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers were the heroes of the day). And a few would stop cold — halting the line — rather than walk across the grating.

Was it the lurking turtles? The fear of falling through (that was my fear as a 3-year old)? It doesn’t matter, they were scared.

It doesn’t matter that grown ups don’t get it and our reassurances only go so far. It’s one thing to hear that you can’t fall through holes so small; it’s another thing entirely to believe it. We as grown people know that you can’t go down the drain but their visceral fear tells them to beware. We know that the daycare teacher is the same person even though she’s changed her hair but to a child she’s an uncanny stranger. It takes time and exposure to learn to trust the bold bewildering world.

To sensitive children, even tiny changes can feel like very big deals. The wind picks up and right away they know there’s a storm coming; a storm with thunder. And so they run terrified to the car, refusing to stay at the park.

Developmentally it makes perfect sense.

Think about things that scared you when you were small — vacuum cleaners, big dogs (and all dogs are big when you’re little), dark closets with the doors cracked. What made them scary to you? Was it the noise? The unpredictability? Or the deep unknown? At heart you were scared because you were small and vulnerable.

Children literally depend on their parents for their survival and so they are primed to get afraid and run for reassurance. This makes good evolutionary sense when you live in a world with sabertooth tigers, right? But children don’t have the life experience to know that an automatic flush toilet won’t kill us.

When we’re little the fear seems never ending because we are too inexperienced to know that there is the other side. We can’t imagine a time when we will be able to trust that the vacuum cleaner might slip and suck us up, too. It’s unfathomable to a small child to face the chaos of the noise vacuum and stand strong. How much easier (and more prudent) is it to run from the room or climb up on the couch where they know it can’t get them.

Children need help to confront their fears. They need validation but not coddling, which is tricky for parents who are are used to stepping in and soothing when their children are upset. Finding the right balance of empathy and encouragement is key especially for highly sensitive children who are attuned to every environmental shift and every parental emotional response. The more children are given the support to face their fears, the more powerful they will be as they grow and move into the world under their own protection.

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