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Understanding Anxiety

Anxiety Whack-a-Mole

boy in yellow shirt

Learning to manage anxiety means playing the long game. For kids and parents who have the kinds of brains that tend to get anxious, we’re not talking about a one-and-done effort. Anxious people need to learn how to live with anxiety because it’s not something to be cured. Instead we need to learn how to cope with worries in productive ways.

When we teach kids how to face up to and manage their response to their worries then they can face being nervous without becoming completely undone. But it’s just not realistic to say, “Hey, if you do this thing then you’ll never be anxious again.” Of course they’ll be anxious again and that’s not a failure. That’s not a failure of theirs or a failure of yours; it’s part of the reality of being a person with anxiety.

Anxious people see the world in a particular way. Their brains are looking and preparing for things that might go wrong and that’s not likely to change with therapy or meds. The issue is not the anxious brain; it’s the way the anxious brain learns to handle being anxious. Instead of going straight to worst case scenario, we want to slow the anxious brain down to be more realistic when assessing the situation. Instead of becoming physically undone by anxiety symptoms, we want to teach the anxious brain to breathe through the sweaty palms and calm the fluttering stomach.

But new situations, new developmental stages, and new challenges are likely to bring an anxious person back to anxiety and they will need to walk themselves through the process again. With practice it will get easier but to expect our anxious children to be cured, well, that’s not realistic.

Preparing for relapse (a step back to anxious behaviors) is part of being an anti-anxiety family. It’s not negative to acknowledge that lessons will need to be practiced and even relearned. It’s not failure to have to go back to the beginning and revisit our early lessons and skills. It’s part of the process of being a person with a sensitive, thoughtful, cautious and yes, anxious brain.

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.

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