Anxiety Symptoms in Children

When exploring when anxiety first started for them, many clients will link it back to their early adult years; I often remark that their anxiety may have started earlier than that as it tends to manifest differently in children.

In an article entitled “10 Anxiety Symptoms in Children that Most Parents Miss” by Angela Pruess, we learn about how anxiety isn’t always what we assume it to be in children. Pruess lists symptoms that might be masking what turns out to be underlying anxiety. Three that stood out to me include:

  • Anger. “When our brain’s emotion center is overactivated (which is what happens with anxiety) a child is more inclined to be irritable and reactive as all emotions are working in overdrive.” I often mention to folks that it is a natural response to jump from feeling anxious to feeling angry as our body physiologically is essentially mimicked in both cases – heightened blood pressure, rapid breathing, feeling ‘wound up.’ Makes sense that could be happening to our littles too.
  • Struggling to fall asleep. “Anxious thoughts love to visit when our minds are quiet and the hustle and bustle of the day are no longer there to distract us. Night waking is also common when our brains are functioning out of a state of anxiety and are more hypervigilant of any external or internal stimuli such as a noise from the hallway or a scary dream.” Children’s tendency for magical thinking might also trigger an anxious response; especially when the house is dark and quiet.
  • Trouble with focus. “Living under a heightened state of stress puts a child’s brain on continual ‘survival mode’, meaning the emotion center of the brain is continually overactivated. When a child’s amygdala is working in overdrive their ‘thinking brain’ (located in the frontal lobe) automatically becomes less accessible.” This is why it is important to assess the amount of stress that might exist in our children’s lives; from overscheduling, to conflict in the home, or not enough down time/connection as a family.

Pruess mentions seven other symptoms that are noteworthy of reading. To read the full article:

To visit her website entitled “Parents with Confidence”:

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Asking the Worry

After a worry has passed we can often look back and recognize that the worry grew too big. We agonized over it, paced the floor with our minds over it, allowed it to grow out of proportion until it occupied way too much of our time and space. Perhaps, instead of reflecting after the worry, we can pause for a moment mid-worry and ask it “Are you a hypothetical worry or a practical one?”

Hypothetical worries are not based on facts – they are based on fears. They are the worries that niggle at our doubts and drown us in anticipated despair. They are the worries that take up way too much space. Practical worries might actually help us. They are the here and now worries, the ones we can do something about.

If our worry is hypothetical, we are much better served to ‘put it on the back burner’ and move to a distraction. This can take some work, but it is achievable. And if the worry is practical, we can move to action – doing something always brings us a greater feeling of feeling settled.

Stopping to pause and ask our worry just where it stands can be a small coping strategy with big impact.

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Fretting and the Essence of Time

I have to imagine that at the “pioneer point” in our existence, there was a time for worrying – that we were presented with something we needed to deal with and apart from that, we were pretty busy just trying to till the land, fill the larder, and keep the fire stoked. In times when there was so much work to be done in a day, our worries were immediate and we needed to deal with them accordingly.

It would seem today that our worrying and fretting is no longer balanced with the essence of time. If we are in a position of having too much time to fill, our worries have the ability to take over; we tend to ruminate, overthink and get ourselves worked up. We stew about it.

If we are in a position where we don’t have enough time in our day, our tendency is to push away the niggling thoughts; the worries get set aside as ‘we have no time to deal with them.’ Don’t worry, they will come back with a vengeance, the moment your head hits the pillow or a sense of panic comes out of nowhere.

Perhaps the trick is to deal with the worries as they present themselves. Slow down long enough to give the worry some room, without letting it take over completely. Action being your biggest ally.

Asking yourself:

  • What am I worried about?
  • Is this a true alarm or a false one? (Focus on fact, not on fear)
  • What can I do about it right now?

When we are able to deal with the worry accordingly as it comes up, we also have the essence of time on our side and we can get back to a grounded, take life one day at a time, settled place.

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The Benefits of Mindful Breathing

Mindful breathing is a conscious exercise; one in which we purposefully carve out some time (even 5 minutes) to pay attention to our breathing. The basics include:

  • Pick a quiet location, free of distraction.
  • Close your eyes and turn your attention inward to your breathing.
  • Slow your breaths; inhale through the nose, expanding your belly. Exhale slowly.
  • If your attention shifts from breathing, that is okay. Gently encourage it back to the simple act of breathing – in and out.

The benefits of mindful breathing include:

  • It inhibits anxiety, decreasing stress and worry.
  • It distracts us from the things we can’t control and reminds us that we are capable of facing challenges.
  • It helps to still ruminating thoughts.
  • It slows the heart rate, decreasing pain and the body’s stress response.
  • It helps us to recognize calm.
  • It helps us to feel more centered and increases our self-control.
  • It inhibits anger; allowing our rational brain some space.
  • It helps the brain to focus.

When we practice mindful breathing on a daily basis – this can become a lovely anchor activity – we are proactively working with our comfort system to feel grounded and secure. In order to get started, it may help to listen to a guided mindful breathing exercise (there are countless examples on Youtube!)

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Tips for Moving Past Social Anxiety

Yesterday’s post examined what social anxiety is and how it tends to develop for people. Today, we will look at ways that we can begin to challenge social anxiety by lessening it’s hold on us.

The first step comes by way of exploring why social anxiety has become an issue. When we can understand something, it tends to give us permission to ask ourselves “Does it have to be this way?” It is also important to recognize that what may have started out as an association, has now become a fully formed habit due to reinforcement; after all, the more we feed something, the bigger it gets.

Tips for challenging social anxiety:

  • Start small. Going to the biggest event in history is probably not the best way to challenge social anxiety. Instead, choose an event in which there are going to be people present that you know, as well as a few people that you don’t.
  • Create a safety net. Arrive with someone you know, position yourself closest to an exit (sometimes just knowing that you can ‘escape’ helps), give yourself a timeline (commit to an hour), purposely choose your time to go to the store or use the phone (peak times are not the time to be challenging your social anxiety.) Feeling safer in social interactions will help to temper the fear response.
  • Get your mind into it. Your body is designed to react to your fear response; by challenging that fear with curiosity and positive affirmations, we can begin to temper our visceral response. Are you telling yourself you are going to be judged, or are you telling yourself that people are usually pretty wrapped up in what they are doing, and not really noticing what is going on with you. Use reality; logic, your rational voice. Tell yourself what you would tell a friend.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Challenging a fear means choosing a different focus and creating a new habit. Social situations can be less daunting, and as you challenge those fears, it will increase your self-confidence and sense of agency.

The goal of challenging social anxiety is simply to become more comfortable with social interactions and meeting new people. Big crowds and social situations may still give you the nervous nellies, but with coping strategies in place, you also can be reassured that you don’t have to continually miss out. Sounds like a good plan to me 🙂

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Let’s Look at Social Anxiety

“I will worry about a social gathering as soon as know about it. I rarely commit so that I can have a way out.” 

“Just the thought of going to the grocery store can send me into a panic. And if the parking lot is full? Forget it, I don’t even go in.”

“I hate talking on the phone; I get so anxious when I have to call for an appointment, or even to order a pizza.”

Social anxiety is the fear of social situations; people who suffer with social anxiety will report that it really isn’t about shyness, but rather the fear of interacting with people they don’t know. This is typically why crowded places such as stores, theatres, or big social gatherings become sources of anxiety, fear and avoidance.

In my work with clients who report struggling with social anxiety, they often speak about the fear of being judged by others and not wanting to be the center of attention. They worry that everyone will be looking at them, or they will have no one to talk to and be left standing alone, open to  criticism. They feel trapped.

The first step in addressing social anxiety is to explore it. How did it develop? What are your biggest struggles when it comes to meeting new people? How would you like it to change?

Sometimes social anxiety can begin as a result of having been bullied or ostracized as a child. The social interactions we have as adults often mimic those in a school setting, and if we struggled in school to fit in or make friends, it might have created an association of fear when meeting new people. Sometimes social anxiety can come from a history of family conflict; being repeatedly criticized, or having been abused as a child. We can also struggle with social anxiety if we tend to be quite introverted; small talk is difficult, coupled with a fear of confrontation, and the noise and heightened energy of crowds can be overstimulating.

Once we can identify the potential cause of our social anxiety, we can begin to work at challenging it. Tomorrow’s post will explore some ways that we can move towards feeling safer in social situations.

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Being Grounded as a Preventative Measure

There are times when we are just going to feel anxious as we get faced with challenges and worries that we must attend to. Using grounding techniques for those times help to get through the anxious moments.

But there is something to be said for the practice of “being grounded.” It can be a goal that we set as a way of life that helps us to consciously spend more time in our comfort system. By practicing the art of being grounded on a daily basis, we are giving ourselves permission to not only prevent a lot of unnecessary anxiety, but we also create a good foundation for dealing with worries when they strike.

Choosing to ‘be grounded’ involves soothing techniques and creating space for daily self-care:

  • Anchoring your day. When we dedicate time to feeling grounded, we begin our day with something that anchors it. It doesn’t need to take up a lot of time – it can be something as simple as doing some morning stretches, saying your prayers, sitting by the window for a few minutes, meditating, writing in a gratitude journal, reading a favourite blog. 🙂
  • Bookending your day. It is good practice to break up our day with activities that reset our system. It is good to have a mid-day reset (such as a 15 min walk outside) as well as one at the end of the work day (listening to a positive podcast on the way home from work, or playing a soothing playlist.) A short ritual at bed time is also recommended (it can look quite similar to your morning activity.)
  • Choosing to soothe. This involves making sure that we are creating moments of feeling soothed or grounded throughout the day. It can include having a warm cup of tea, listening to music while making dinner, taking time to just step outside to take in the fresh air. Wrapping yourself in a cozy blanket, having the dog or cat cuddle up beside you, giving hugs to your loved ones.
  • Creating joy. Building time into our week that focus on joy and laughter is a great way to remain grounded as those types of activities soothe and feed the soul. Making sure to build those into our week on a regular basis helps to feel settled as we have connected with the joyful and creative sides of ourselves.
  • Get outside daily. Find the green spaces, do some gardening. The earth has the ability to remind us daily that it is okay to feel settled and calm.

To live grounded is a choice. There are times that are going to unsettle that feeling and that is okay; we will be better equipped to handle those challenges when we have worked diligently to live in our comfort system.

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Grounding Techniques; Post 2

Yesterday’s post touched on the importance of using the practice of grounding when feeling especially anxious or overwhelmed. We explored five ways to use our physical selves to bring our calm back to the situation at hand. Today’s post will feature five mental techniques of grounding:

  • Describe what is around you. Take in your surroundings as a way to help ground yourself. “I am sitting on a blue chair. I can feel the way the chair supports my lower back; my feet are flat on the floor.  The sun is shining, the leaves on the trees are so green. I can faintly hear the birds chirping.”
  • Use math or a repetitive phrase. Counting backwards from 100 by threes (it is harder than you think!), running through times tables. Saying a favourite prayer repetitively until a sense of calm begins to return, choosing a favourite positive affirmation such as “No matter what I will be okay,” or “This too shall pass.”
  • Use your imagination. We all have a place to which we associate a feeling of being calm. Use your imagination to picture yourself there – “I am sitting on the gray sand of York Beach, Maine. The sun is warm on my face, I can see the waves rolling in and crashing on the shore. I can hear the seagulls calling each other, sounds of people in the ocean. I can close my eyes and feel the slight breeze on my face, the scent of salt water in the air.”
  • Listen to a guided meditation. Sometimes we have trouble bringing our mind away from the ruminating cycle of thought and we need to hear someone else’s calm voice.
  • Play a category game. Using the alphabet, think of a person’s name for each letter. Pick any category and try to list as many things as you can – examples such as “zoo animals,” “bands from the eighties,” “places I’ve visited,” etc.

The trick to grounding techniques is to use them. Very often, our anxious moments are so convincing, we are pulled into feeding our fight or flight system versus realizing that we can make a conscious choice to feed our comfort system.

Tomorrow’s post will feature the act of grounding as a preventative measure; as a way to stay ahead of our anxiety instead of chasing it.

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Grounding Techniques for when Anxiety Strikes

We can all have those moments when we feel especially overwhelmed. For those who struggle with pervasive anxiety, chronic worry, or panic attacks, being able to slow things down can feel almost impossible. Grounding is a practice that can help to do that. Grounding techniques are designed to use distraction as a way to help manage challenging emotions. Here are five grounding techniques that focus on using the senses, or our physical self in order to calm:

  • Deep belly breathing. When we are especially anxious, we are breathing more quickly which can feed the spiral. Diaphragmatic breathing triggers our comfort system as it helps to inhibit anxiety. One way to practice is to place your hand on your belly and begin to take in deep breaths through your nose (about 3 seconds) and exhale through pursed lips (for 6 seconds). Doing this for 2 minutes resets the system.
  • Temperature change. Running cold water over your hands, splashing your face with it. Holding an ice cube. If it is winter, stepping outside and taking in some deep breaths.
  • 5 senses trick. Using the environment around you, label 5 things that you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. Doing this exercise can help to bring our body and mind together, distracting our mind from  thoughts that are pushing to take over.
  • Go for a walk. The change of scenery will help, so will counting your steps, movement alone does wonders for getting your body and mind working in sync.
  • Pick an anchor object. We may have a difficult moment we just need to get through. An anchor object is a small item that brings you comfort when holding it. It might include a charm on a necklace, a worry ring, a smooth stone, a rosary, a coin. When feeling anxious, it helps to hold the anchor object, reminding yourself of why it brings you comfort.

These grounding techniques are ones that are use our physical senses to help calm our mind. Tomorrow’s post will look at mental techniques that we can use when feeling anxious.

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A Little Trick for ‘What-if’ Thinking

Worrying about something can often monopolize our thoughts, wreak havoc on our emotions, and rob us of our energy. ‘Worst-case-scenario’ worrying will quickly bring us from a place where logic might have had a say to the “worst outcome possible, which will be devastating.” 

Sound familiar? I think that everyone can say that worriers or not, we have all landed there a few times. I was recently with a client who talked about the things in her past that she was proud of having accomplished; one of them was taming down her worst-case-scenario worrying. She stated that what really helped her was a simple trick with language – “Every time I go to automatically think ‘What if….” I change it to ‘What is.'”

Which, when we think about it, totally makes sense. “What if” brings us to a place where our worry gets tied into our imagination and we lean into the infinite possibilities. That gets combined with negative bias (the natural tendency to think the worst – based on our survival brain), and we have the worst outcome possible. But if we change that to “What is” we are now leaning into our rational brain; we shift from our imagination to the facts, or what we know right now. When we utilize our logic, we also open up the space to move away from negative bias, creating a more realistic, objective analysis of the situation.

“What is” instead of “What if” – I like it! 🙂

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