Mental Health
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Anxiety in Children: Turning it Around
January 2023 ~ Happy new year!
Fear and anxiety is a normal part of growing up. It is a sign that your child is starting to understand the world and the way it works, and that they are trying to make sense of what it means for them.

However some children's experiences of anxiety can become excessive, ongoing and overwhelming, and it can rob them of their belief in themselves, their engagement with the world and the unfolding of their potential. 
The good news is that anxiety is manageable. When coping skills and brave behavior is rewarded and practiced in the home, children can learn to face their fears, take reasonable risks, and ultimately gain confidence.
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Anxiety and the Brain
The part of the brain that keeps us safe from threat is the amygdala. The amygdala’s job is to scan the environment for threat, and make quick decisions. In less than 1/10 of a second, the amygdala will decide whether something is a threat. This is why anxiety can often feel as though it has come from nowhere.
If the amygdala decides there is a threat, it will surge the body with fight or flight neurochemicals which shut down the thinking brain. This is because brain acts first to keep us safe, then decides later whether the response was necessary. 
But what if there actually is nothing to worry about? Too late, by then, the neurochemicals are surging through the body and the feelings that come with this, feed anxious thoughts, (I think something bad might happen) which will lead to anxious behaviour – avoidance (flight) or aggression (fight).
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Anxiety vs Anxiety Disorder
If anxiety is just part of being human, how can it also be a disorder? The difference is in what causes the anxiety to occur and how much it impacts quality of life. 

Problematic anxiety is much stronger, lasts longer, and is harder to control. It can be a real barrier in people's lives and prevent them from pursuing their usual activities. 
Experts note there are two indicators of an anxiety disorder. The first is avoidance - refusing to do things or to go places.

The second is extreme distress which may manifest as difficulty sleeping, headaches, stomach pains (or other physical symptoms) that don't come from other medical conditions.
Anxiety becomes a problem when it causes a problem. When the fear seems to direct most of your child’s behaviour or the day to day life of the family (sleep, family outings, routines, going to school, friendships), it’s likely the anxiety has become too pushy and it’s time to provide your child with information and strategies to help them manage their anxiety. 

Strengthening Children Against Anxiety
When kids are anxious, it‘s natural to want to help them feel better. But trying to protect kids from the things that upset them, can accidentally make anxiety worse. The best way to help kids overcome anxiety is to teach them to deal with it, and as a consequence it will decrease over time. Below are some suggestions on how to do that, adapted from Hey Sigmund.
Don‘t try to  talk them out of it. As a parent, the temptation is to reassure your child with comments such as "There‘s nothing to worry about." This comes from love, but it may make them feel that there is something wrong with them. When anxiety has a hold of them, they want to believe you but their brains just won‘t let them.

What they need to know is that you get it. Ask them what it feels like for them. They may or may not be able to describe it. You can ask if it‘s like that feeling you get when you are falling in a dream. Often, this in itself is a relief because someone understands and validates how they are feeling.
Normalize. Explain that anxiety is normal and everyone experiences it at some time in their life. It happens to lots of adults and lots of kids. Anxiety in kids is common. About 1 in 8 kids have struggled with anxiety – so in their class, there‘s a good chance that 3 or 4 other kids would know exactly what they‘re going through.
Explain why anxiety feels like it does. Out of everything, this is perhaps the most powerful intervention for anyone with anxiety. Anxiety in kids causes the most problems when it seems to come on without any real trigger. There‘s a reason for this, and...

Give it a name. Once you have explained (using the script above) that anxiety feelings come from the ferocious warrior part of their brain, encourage your child to pick a name for it and imagine what it looks like. This will help them to feel as though something else is the problem, not them. It also takes the mystery out of  their anxiety. Rather than it being a nameless, faceless, thing, it is something contained – with a name and a look. 
Now get them ready to take charge. The problem with anxiety is that REX is calling all the shots but we know that you‘re really the boss. REX actually thinks he is protecting you, so what you need to do is let him know that you‘ve got this and that he can relax. When you get those anxious feelings let REX know that you‘re okay. 
And breath. The most powerful thing you can do to make yourself the boss of your brain again is breathe. Part of the reason you feel as you do is because your breathing has gone from strong and slow  to quick and shallow. Once your breathing is under control, REX will stop thinking it has to...

Exercise. Research has found that exercise strengthens the brain against anxiety by boosting levels of important neurotransmitters. One of these is GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). People with lower levels of GABA  are less able to block unwanted thoughts. These include the what-if thoughts that feed into excessive worrying. GABA also acts as the brain’s calm down chemical. It has the very important job of settling down over-excited neurons. If GABA is low, there is nothing to calm them.
Mindfulness. Research studies found that mindfulness is associated with substantial reductions in symptoms of anxiety. 

Mindfulness trains the brain to let thoughts, feelings, sensations come and go. With practice, mindfulness builds the capacity for children to be with their thoughts and feelings, without reacting to them. 
Eventually, this makes way for anxious thoughts and feelings to be there, but without the intensity that can drive fear and avoidance.
Remember that anxiety in kids is manageable but it might take time. Explain to your child that their very clever and very protective brain might need some convincing that just because it thinks there‘s trouble coming, doesn‘t mean there is.

As a parent you can play a significant role in helping our child manage anxiety. In addition you may want to talk to their primary care provider and describe the symptoms that you’ve noticed in your child. The  doctor can check to see if there might be medical explanations for their symptoms and/or suggest places to find support. 

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The content provided through the Snapshots is for information purposes only. The Snapshots include information that is general in nature and cannot address the many individual child rearing challenges parents and caregivers may experience. Therefore it is the readers‘ responsibility to determine the suitability of the information for their specific needs.

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