What is anxiety?
Anxiety is the normal stress response to something we find dangerous or threatening. Anxiety keeps us safe, believe it or not. However, for some people, this anxiety response is activated when there is no ‘real’ danger or threat but rather a danger or threat that is thought or believed to be real. Your mind and your child’s mind are not able to differentiate between real danger and thoughts of danger so the response is exactly the same.
Anxiety becomes a problem when you or your child is stuck in the cycle. The Anxiety Cycle can make managing anxiety overwhelming and distressing. If this kind of anxiety goes on for a long time, it can leave you or your child feeling exhausted and isolated thus limiting the things they feel they are able to do.
1. The anxiety occurs because of an event or thought about a previous event which leads to the physical symptoms of anxiety, making you or your child uncomfortable.
2. The usual strategy for managing these symptoms is to avoid all possibilities of the event or thought occurring again
3. Avoidance provides short-term relief from the anxiety as the symptoms quickly disappear
4. However, this avoidance leads to long-term anxiety growth. This means the fear that initially led to the avoidance becomes worse and the brain learns that the situation must be avoided at all costs because it is dangerous or threatening. As a result, the symptoms will be worse next time, and avoidance is more likely.
What causes anxiety in children and young people?
Being exposed to adult situations or conversations such as health scares, degrading conversations about their other parent, financial worries etc.
Experiencing significant changes in a short space of time such as moving house, or moving schools etc.
Having too many responsibilities placed on them that are beyond their age and development, for example becoming a carer to a parent
Being around a parent, sibling or other immediate family member who is also anxious
Struggling with school such as feeling overwhelmed by coursework, homework, or expectations to get high grades
Experiencing distressing or traumatic experiences in which they do not feel safe such as bullying, witnessing/ experiencing abuse and neglect and the death of a parent or sibling etc.
Your Child's Brain and Anxiety
A child’s brain is not fully developed until around the age of 25. The experiences and relationships your child have during these years will heavily influence the way their brain is ‘wired up’. The brain talks to itself and the body across a neural network through electrical impulses much like the way your house receives
electricity from the National Grid. This neural network can be pruned (swapped and changed) depending on the external environment and the influences this has on your child’s self-esteem, self-worth, and self- belief (the internal environment).
The Owl, The Meerkat and The Elephant
There are three areas of the brain responsible for anxiety. These are the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. It can be helpful to think of these areas as the Owl brain, the Meerkat brain, and the Elephant brain.
The Owl brain is wise. It is where logical thinking and reasoning happens.
The Meerkat brain looks for danger. A Meerkat will use its hind legs to look for predators or other danger and sound the alarm when they think danger is near causing the other meerkats to run and hide.
The Elephant brain remembers. The Elephant brain forms memories and stores these for future reference.
When anxiety occurs, the Owl brain switches off. It goes to sleep. This prevents your child from thinking logically and reasonable. The Meerkat brain goes into hyper mode. It believes your child is in danger and sounds the alarm. This wakes up the Elephant brain. The Elephant brain then looks through its memory storage and selects a time when anxiety was present in a similar situation. This causes the Meerkat and the Elephant brain to have a conversation with each other. This results in anxious symptoms and the avoidant behaviour.
Ways to activate the Owl Brain in an anxious moment
There are a lot of useful techniques and tools that can help calm an anxious mind and body. What you are aiming to do is switch on the Owl brain and stop the Elephant and Meerkat brain from ruling your child.
Mindfulness – Mindfulness is key in developing a healthy relationship between the mind and body. Mindfulness enables your child to get in touch with their subconscious mind. This mind often holds the answers to why your child is thinking, feeling, and behaving the way they are.
Ground techniques – 54321, categories, mental exercises such as naming all the objects you can see, counting backwards from 100 by 7, spelling your name backwards.
Reassurance – repeating "It Will Pass" together whilst holding hands
Make use of a weighted blanket – this is part of stimming which enables the body to relax as it activates the calming nervous system.
How to help your child manage anxiety in the long-term
When everyone is calmer and the anxious moment has passed, it can be helpful to talk with your child about their anxiety, keeping in mind their developmental age. By talking about it, you are encouraging your child to realise that there is nothing wrong with them and that they are not at fault. You are showing them that they are not alone.
Be mindful of your own actions. Are you potentially taking over from your child too soon and your child doesn’t have a chance to figure it out for themselves? Do you talk about mental ill-health in negative terms or just want your child to be ‘fixed’? Or do you allow your child to make mistakes and navigate the world for themselves. Anxious children will need to be shown that you are supporting in the background rather than taking control of the situation. Taking control for them can lead to long-term anxiety growth.
Help your child to recognise the signs that they are getting anxious. Usually, you will be able to tell before your child does. By intervening early using skills and techniques, you may even stop a full anxiety attack or panic attack in its tracks
Make a self-soothe box. In this box you could put stress balls, cards with the techniques on it, comforting smells such as lavender and lemongrass, fidget toys, worry beads, photos of happy places. Anything can go in the box. This is a task to do with your child or allow your child to do it alone, depending on their age
Family mindfulness. Take part in meditations together as a whole family even when no one is feeling anxious. Make this a time every day. Form a habit in much the same way as bath time or bedtime.
How can therapy help?
Here at Sleek Therapy UK, we offer a variety of therapeutic modalities to children who are experiencing anxiety. Therapy can help to improve your child’s knowledge of themselves, identify their early warning signs, know, and implement techniques that work for them, improve school outcomes and most of all, enable them to be the best version of themselves.
Child therapy £75.00 per session
Adult therapy £80.00 per session