Coping with Anxiety
Anxiety is a medical condition, diagnosed by a doctor or a licensed mental health professional, that is characterized by excessive fear or the anticipation of a perceived threat. Anxiety is often associated with physical symptoms (like headaches, stomach pain or a racing heartbeat), separation issues (like not wanting to leave a parent), social concerns (like wanting to avoid parties or not wanting to leave the house), and fearful thinking (like being overly worried that a class or work presentation will not go well and that you’ll be humiliated).
If you are concerned that your child may be suffering from anxiety, it is important to call your child’s doctor. Anxiety is a medical condition and can only be diagnosed by a medical doctor or by a licensed mental health professional. If you have questions or need some guidance, please reach out to the mental health team at school – your child’s school counselor, social worker or school psychologist will be happy to assist you and can direct you to other resources that can help.
Physical signs of anxiety can include:
- Stomach aches or loss of appetite
- Asking to go to the nurse excessively, for a child in school
- Feeling sick when under stress
- Racing heart or shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Hot flashes, sweating, trembling, or nausea
Signs of separation issues associated with anxiety can include:
- Child having trouble leaving home to go to school
- Child having difficulty saying goodbye to a parent or caregiver
- Child frequently asking to call home or have a parent pick them up from school early
- Child being resistant to sleep overs, going to camp, etc.
- Child struggling to return to school after vacations, holidays, or weekends
- Child throwing tantrums when facing separation from a preferred adult
- Child resists going to bed or sleeping alone
Signs of social fears associated with anxiety can include:
- Child being overly quiet – struggling to speak or to make eye contact
- Child keeps to himself/herself – would rather spend time alone than with other kids
- Child has trouble warming up in new social situations
- Child who is or who feels teased or bullied by peers
- Child who resists speaking or presenting in class
- Child who isolates during unstructured time
- Child who relates mostly to adults in school and outside of school
- Child with few or no peer relationships
- Child with limited social activity outside of school
Examples of fearful thinking associated with anxiety may include:
- Child who dwells on past problems
- Child who has difficulty concentrating or performing under pressure
- Child who is overly pessimistic, consistently negative in his or her thinking
- Child who expects things to always go badly
- Child who engages in lots of negative self-talk
- Child who often gets down on himself/herself - feels stupid or untalented despite other people seeing the opposite
- Child who values lowering stress over most other things
It is important to remember that we all experience some anxiety at times. Anxiety can even be helpful to a degree. It can help to motivate us, to encourage us to work harder to achieve a goal, or even to protect us from harm. Anxiety is generally seen to be a problem when it interferes with our normal life functioning – when it prevents us from going to school or to work, when it impacts our ability to socialize or to develop friendships, when it begins to distort our thinking about ourselves and our ability to be successful. High levels of anxiety can make us prone to negative self-talk and expecting things to always go badly for us. It can wreck our self confidence and make us overly fearful and pessimistic, dwelling on past problems or feeling stupid or unworthy.
It is normal for people feeling high levels of anxiety to want to escape or to avoid the things that make them anxious. Unfortunately, escape and avoidance are not usually the best long-term solutions for dealing with anxiety – that approach usually leads to greater problems or impairment of life functioning down the road. The key to helping children, or anyone facing anxiety, is finding a way to manage the distress and discomfort that comes with facing one’s fears. As adults who are trying to help a child deal with this discomfort, it means finding the right balance and gradually helping the child face the anxiety-provoking situation, with a plan and lots of support. If we push them too hard too quickly to face their fear without enough support, they won’t be successful in dealing with the stress. If we are too permissive and don’t push them hard enough to learn to deal with their fears, it will lead to impairment and further struggles in life.
With the right support, people who struggle with anxiety can learn to manage their distress and lead happy, well-adjusted lives. Treatment often involves some combination of therapy and medication, but every situation is different and must be evaluated by a professional. If your child’s anxiety involves school and is reflected in school avoidance, it is very important that we all work together on developing a plan – student, family, doctor/therapist and school. Our goal is to help the child build new skills and understanding.
There are many techniques that therapists use to help people struggling with anxiety – most of these involve teaching relaxation techniques and mindful practices. These techniques help individuals by teaching them:
- To focus and control their thoughts and block out the anxiety or negative thoughts
- To focus on sensations – what they’re hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching or feeling
- To imagine a pleasant memory or experience (being at the beach, reliving a favorite vacation or experience)
- To be in the moment, rather than thinking about the past or worrying about the future
- To focus on and relax specific muscle groups where stress is often felt – neck, back, stomach, arms or legs
- Other activities that can calm the person and help distract them from the anxiety – like listening to music, writing in a journal, working on a piece of artwork, exercising, or meditating
- Focused breathing exercises
Just like anything else, these skills improve with practice. At first, any of them can seem awkward or weird, but if a person is taught the proper technique by a professional and commits to practicing them even when not feeling anxious, they can be very helpful. The anxiety may still be there to a degree, but the person can learn to manage it and still go on with his or her life.
The starting point is recognizing that something is going on and getting help. Having a team come together to build a plan is essential – student, family, doctor/therapist, and school. Also important is consistently following the plan. This can be hard for parents. We don’t like seeing our children in distress, and kids who have learned to cope with anxiety by avoidance or throwing tantrums can be notoriously reluctant to give up those coping strategies, because they’re familiar and they feel like they work. As a parent, sometimes it feels like it’s getting worse before it gets better. Holding your child to the plan is essential to success – it must include equal parts support and expectations for healthy functioning. We don’t want to see our children struggle emotionally, but we don’t want to see them grow up impaired in their functioning, either. By working together, we can come up with the right plan to help our children be successful and happy.
*Adapted from Dr John Wallace – Bridging the Gap: Coming Together to Manage School Anxiety