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  • Jo Wildsmith

Anxiety isn't always what you think!

Updated: Feb 19

In a world that is in turmoil, the hardest moment to bear witness to is that of our children’s distress. Yes we are in a pandemic and there is another lockdown underway. We’ve done this before and we will get through this again, and if we run out of loo roll we will use our initiative and creativity to fill this gap in our weekly shopping basket. But how do we manage our children’s distress and how do we all get through this without formulating maladaptive coping mechanisms?

Anxious behaviours come in all shapes and forms and it is really important to recognise that. It is not always that nervous face, chewed nails and dragging of the heels that we see. Sometimes we may see explosive behaviours, or a strong will to control others. Or, it might be that there is a huge amount of repetitious thoughts and planning over certain events or situations. This form of coping helps the anxious child feel some level of external control as the internal self struggles to influence the overwhelming feelings. To re establish this power they try to control environmental factors that may be contributing to this uncomfortable state.

Anxiety might look like defiance or present as challenging behaviours as children refuse to complete a piece of work set by the teacher, or argue against trying a new activity that has been offered, even new foods can provoke anxiety. So the anxious child avoids places situations and people that make them feel uncomfortable, inhibiting their ability to freely explore and creatively approach the world around them.

Anxiety highjacks emotions and the overwhelm can result in tears and tantrums as managing the emotional brain is not possible when there is a heightened sense of survival that is ever present. Anxiety makes sleep very difficult and often that makes everyday activities even harder to manage. Anxiety takes all our time and attention as we worry and ruminate on what might never be, this lessens that space we have to stay focused and present on the task at hand.

Anxiety may have many physiological symptoms such as stomach ache and head aches that have no medical explanation. This is because our nervous system is constantly in detection mode so as the brain is sensing signs of danger the nervous system sends cues to shut down digestion, increase heart rate, release stress hormones and prime muscles in anticipation to run away or fight. Science proves that the brain does not know the difference between what is real and what is imagined, so whether there is a real life sabre toothed tiger chasing us or whether it is our imagination of that scary scenario be playing out in our minds, the physiological changes will still occur. This is all happening on a very unconscious level, we have very little awareness of this.

This isn’t all bad news; we can use this neuroscientific discovery and the amazing ability of the brain to combat anxiety. Imagine the brain to be like a meadow with long tall grass, if we walk a path once we will hardly notice the trodden grass, but if we walk the path daily, we will create prominent walk ways. This is how scientists believe we rewire neural pathways as they have discovered that due to the brain’s plasticity, we are able to re route and grow, formulating healthier coping mechanisms. That means the more we practice adaptive coping mechanisms to deal with anxiety, the better we become at them being our fundamental go to.


So…..what can we do?

When are children are in a calm state, we can do lots of work around healthier coping mechanisms for distress. Here our role as parents is to explore and facilitate new strategies that can be used during times of distress.

Once a child is in an anxious phase the focus is not on educating and lecturing as their nervous system has shut down their more cognitive and auditory functions, so we need to focus more on calming the physiological response during this phase.

The third element is parental anxiety which will impact our children implicitly. If we look at the nervous system, we communicate safety on a nonverbal level which has more power than narrative at times. So managing our own emotional response will have a big impact on learning for our children.

Basically, we need a few different types of intervention to tackle anxiety in various environments, but it is all learning for us and our children and we can as parents make some really positive changes for us and our children. There is a quote by author James Baldwin ‘Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them’. How true, as they watch us from being a tiny new born right through to arguing with us as teenagers, conversationally reiterating the same arguments we fundamentally used with our parents. Children learn by watching, doing, seeing, feeling, not necessarily by being told what they should do. And, parents can be the change agents within their own family, in educating, learning and growing together.


Top tips for anxiety when in calm state

· Grounding techniques

· Practice mindfulness daily – ‘neurons that fire together wire together’ – D. Hebb

· Talking to a trusted person about triggers and emotional responses

When in anxious state

· Calming the physiology

· Present moment awareness

· Soothing strategies

Parental anxiety

· Managing own emotional state

· Parental response rather than react

· Make it a family affair, working on a tool box for the family’s anxieties



Journal References:

Marianne Cumella Reddan, Tor Dessart Wager, Daniela Schiller. Attenuating Neural Threat Expression with Imagination. Neuron, 2018; 100 (4): 994 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2018.10.047

Polyvagal theory - https://www.rhythmofregulation.com/resources/Beginner's%20Guide.pdf

Hebb, Donald O. (1949), The Organization of Behaviour: A Neuropsychological Theory. New York: Wiley & Sons.

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