A practical approach for responding to anxiety
About 1 in 8 children feel anxious, it is a natural emotion, but having responses in place can provide support. There are practical tips you can put in place to support anxious learners on a daily basis, from a lay point of view. Changing your way of thinking about anxiety, fear, and worry is not a therapy device and does not replace the role of counsellors or therapy sessions. But over time you can form an automatic response routine.
What is Anxiety? Everyone feels anxiety sometimes, and sometimes we feel anxiety even when there is no direct threat. Understanding how our brain works lets it work for us, not against us. It is important to explain this in child friendly terms, but stress that when we feel anxiety the brain, or the amygdala, is just doing its job. It may be doing its job too well, but it is doing exactly what it should do – keeping us safe. When our brain feels we need protection we feel anxious. Sometimes, the amygdala works even when there is no real danger because it can’t tell the difference between a real threat and something that might be a threat – for example, a real fire, or a fire alarm practice or drill. Our amygdala will switch on to protect us anyway because that’s its job. But if we don’t need to react to danger then our body is full of extra oxygen, hormones and adrenalin that we feel because we aren’t using it up. We might get breathless, dizzy or light-headed, feel nauseous and sweaty and our muscles feel tight. These are all physical reactions that our amygdala triggers so that our body is ready for a fight or flight response.
Explaining the physiology is not about invalidating the anxiety. It is about understanding why we feel, physically, as we do. It is important that someone who feels anxious understands physically what is happening, and that it doesn't feel good. But there are some strategies and habits that can be consciously developed to rely on in times of need.
The opposite of anxiety is trust. Having strong relationships with trusted people is vital. Anxiety is an internalising state. Having strong external connections and being outwardly engaged gets you out of your own headspace and helps develop resilience. Find ways to increase opportunities to make fun routine and to enjoy time with other people. One way to foster relationships is through service to others. Finding community opportunities will increase empathy, develop perspective, and form links with others. Increasing relationships and trust will release dopamine, which increases the feeling of wellbeing. Connectivity to peers is an important aspect for strong mental health. This is a particular issue for teens at a time when peer pressure, opinions and social networks play a large part in development.
In addition to understanding the physiology of anxiety and the importance of networks there are some strategies that can form part of daily routine. If they become habitual they can have a cumulative effect and be useful in a testing situation. Rationalising the situation allows us to differentiate between feeling anxiety (which isn’t a good feeling at all) and being in danger and needing to react to stay safe. Reflecting whether the brain is doing too good a job and whether it could it have been less protective.
Whilst deep breathing on its own will not work to address anxiety in the long term it will help to create balance and make us feel a bit better in the immediate situation. Calming breaths will help regain control of the brain and tell the amygdala that it is not needed. We feel breathless because the brain is creating fast little breaths to save oxygen for our muscles. By breathing slowly we counteract the physical preparation to react. Similarly, our muscles become tight when the amygdala makes them ready to respond to, or fight, perceived danger.
Rehearsing relaxation techniques regularly during the week allows it to become an established and familiar routine, or habit, for the body. This can be drawn on when the amygdala prompts the response. Mindfulness trains the brain to be aware of, and stay in, the present.
Sometimes thoughts and memories are subconscious, but can still cause anxiety. If we can stay in the here and now we may be able to minimise, or negate some of these feelings because we avoid speculating about what might happen. Social media and technology has changed the immediacy of information and the resultant dopamine effects of feedback. However, unlike computers we do not have multiple processors. We have to be kind to our brain, by giving it a rest, and letting it focus on only one thing.
Memory can play a role in ongoing anxiety. The brain makes associations between current, and prior, experiences, which both influence reactions to events. Repeated retelling of the ‘story’ or narrating the event can help to reduce its power moving the memory from an implicit to an explicit one.
Focussing on the process not the context, through careful questioning can assist with perspective. This removes the focus from the specific activity to the reactions. “How does worry work?” “What are my strategies when I feel like this?” rather than “I’m scared of swimming.”
Developing self-compassion through positive self-talk can be an effective strategy and increase mental well-being. Rehearse phrases to habitually say. If there are pets, or favourite soft toys, around then it may help to practice the phrases on them. The opposite is also an area to work on. Catch any negative, or ‘catastrophic’ statements, and challenge them.
Move it or lose it! Getting physical can help us deal with anxiety. We can positively impact our emotional state by changing our physical state. Activity increases endorphins that have a positive impact on mood. It also allows an opportunity to socialise and form networks. In addition, in the middle of a panic attack rapid physical activity (star jumps, running to the end of a corridor, or around the garden, etc.) lets the brain feel as if the body has responded with ‘flight’ and so calms down a little.
The brain is a muscle, and the more we exercise it the stronger it becomes. Regular brain exercise, in non-heightened situations, can help to provide support when things become more pressurised.
Developing habits of mind can offer a way to increase resilience and become empowered.
Read more: Brave Time (A practical approach for anxious learners). This book provides an approach to promote positive habits of mind. Over time you can make a difference.