Anxiety – how to help our kids and ourselves

By Emma Whymark - Mum, therapist, trainer, foster carer and education consultant at Changing Behaviour

Let me start by saying it is absolutely okay to be feeling anxious right now – we are living in unprecedented times. Is it okay for your children to see that you’re anxious? I think so – but with the massive rider that they see you cope with that anxiety. You can acknowledge you’re feeling it, express what it feels like for you (great for kids who struggle to identify their own emotions because they don’t understand and/ or can’t recognise where the feelings are in their bodies) and then demonstrate how to use strategies to help you calm yourself down. You’re the one setting the tone.

The most important thing I can offer you right now is a really quick explanation of what anxiety is and what happens in your body. If you understand that you’ll see exactly why the techniques I’m recommending are the most effective. You know your children best and might have to do a bit of adapting to make them age/ability/interest appropriate.

Anxiety is caused by the stress response, sometimes called “fight, flight or freeze”. It stems from the more primitive part of our brains (the bit you find in reptiles and mammals) and is there to protect us when we face danger from a predator such as a wild bear. When we’re threatened, a part of our brain called the amygdala goes into overdrive and produces two stress chemicals – adrenaline and cortisol. These increase our heart rate, make us breathe much more quickly (to get oxygen into our system) and pumps this oxygenated blood to our larger muscles so we are ready to take action. It diverts blood from our digestive system (why we feel sick) and away from the more sophisticated thinking parts of our brain – which is why our minds go blank when we’re under pressure. It’s an excellent system that worked well for our ancient cave dwelling ancestors. However, in our fast-paced modern world it is activated far too quickly and over things that are not life-threatening like the bear or tiger.

The simplest and most powerful tool you possess to combat the stress response is breathing. Specifically, something called belly breathing or 7/11 breathing. The principle is to slow your breathing down by taking deep breaths, in through your nose for 7 and out through your mouth for 11. This dramatically reduces the amount of oxygen in your system and stops the stress response. When doing this with children (or people with breathing issues such as asthma) I teach it as 3/5 or 5/7 – it doesn’t matter as long as the out breath is longer than the in breath. Don’t attempt to teach this when someone is stressed – their thinking brain isn’t working and they can’t hear you. Practice this when you’re all calm and you can make it fun – try blowing a ping pong ball across a table or a balloon up into the air. There are loads of different types of breathing exercises for anxiety that you can find online, just check they are reducing the amount of oxygen you’re taking in.

The other way these exercises help is that by focussing on the breath you’re distracting but you’re also being mindful – meaning your awareness is in the moment, taking attention away from the racing thoughts. Grounding exercises can help with this too. For example, focus on 5 things you can see, 4 you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 you can smell and one thing you can taste. Another version is to go through the alphabet, naming things you can see wherever you are, or you can use other categories such as names, animals, foods or any other area of interest – I did a Pokemon one with a young client a while back! So, I’ve explained the stress response. The good news is that while you have two stress chemicals you also have four main calming ones. Think of these chemicals as being like a see saw, if your stress hormones are high then your calming ones are low and vice versa. If you can keep everyone’s calm hormones levels high then a stress response is less likely or is unlikely to be as severe. The first one is oxytocin – or the love drug. Oxytocin is the reason we fall so deeply in love with our babies, it’s nature’s way of making sure we care for our vulnerable offspring. If you feel like you’re being ‘charged up’ by a hug or a conversation with a good friend – that’s the oxytocin. Cuddles with pets help us to produce it as does stroking or hugging a furry or fleecy blanket or pillow. This works for nearly everyone, although there will be some children for whom sensory issues make this more challenging.

Next is dopamine, the reward hormone. You get a shot of this when you achieve something, whether that’s a good grade on a test, completing a level on a game or just ticking off a job on a to do list. It provides us with motivation. We also get it from being creative and sharing gratitude and kindness. Dopamine is also boosted by creativity. Creative activities that we get lost in also help us switch off and be mindful.

Serotonin is our mood hormone. It’s boosted significantly by exercise and even more so by being outside in nature. Our ancient ancestors spent nearly all their time outside and we’re wired to do the same! We know that the benefits of outdoor exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in treating depression. Make the most of your allowed outside hour! Endorphins are released by taking vigorous activity and are a natural form of pain relief – they can make us feel ‘high’ and give us energy. They are also released when we make music and when we have a real ‘belly laugh’. If we laugh with others, we usually get a shot of oxytocin too. The brilliant thing about all these calm hormones is that they are available 24/7 and they’re totally free. Build in some activities that allow you to produce these everyday and you’re naturally suppressing your stress hormones. There’s lots of pressure on parents right now to be doing amazing amounts of homed education. As an ex-teacher I really don’t think it’s necessary. Go with what your child is interested with. There are loads of ways of getting literacy and numeracy into everyday activities at whatever level is appropriate.

If my now adult children were younger I’d be looking to try and do some of the following, preferably everyday but if not then weekly. Obviously, this list needs adjusting according to age

  • a bit of reading and a bit of free writing if appropriate (a diary of the pandemic to show their grandkids?) maths but it could be digital or practical (cooking or making something)

  • fine motor skill activities, cutting, sewing, Lego etc

  • physical exercise (Joe Wickes on YouTube is brilliant

  • something creative, maybe art or music

  • free play – the younger they are the more they need

  • a project on a topic they’re really interested in

Most importantly is that you need to look after your own mental health. Your kids take their lead from you. If you’re doing okay so will they. There’s a meme doing the rounds that points out your kids will remember how they felt during all of this rather than what they did, it’s simple but very true.

You are the expert on your child, if they need a rigid timetable go with it, it they don’t then be as flexible as you need to be. There are loads of resources online, use what works for you and your child. I’m posting links and suggestions on my Facebook page – Changing Behaviour with Emma Whymark.

Feel free to ask me for help and advice either on the page or in Messenger and I’ll do my best to help if I can. Stay safe! Emma x