Anxiety is one of the most common mental health concerns among kids aged 3-17. Anxiety can manifest in many different mental health disorders, like specific phobias, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Anxiety can also accompany other issues, such as depression, addiction, and behavioral problems. While these concerns are important to discuss in an open environment, talk therapy might not be enough to address anxiety.
What Is Anxiety?
For those that do not experience anxiety, watching someone else experience it might appear to be something that they can snap out of. They might think that if they just push through their fears, they will move past the anxiety quickly. Kids might be forced to encounter situations that cause undue stress, while others think they are just being dramatic and need to get over it.
For the person experiencing anxiety, the feelings and fears are very real to them. While we know that going into a crowded room will not be a life or death situation, a child with social anxiety feels like this situation could physically harm them. A situation that appears harmless could feel traumatic to a child with anxiety. While we might assume anxiety is just all in a person’s head, anxiety is a physical issue. The body feels that to survive, the person must avoid this anxiety-inducing situation at all costs.
Anxiety results from an overly active alarm system—causing a person to have survival mode responses. The fight or flight response, which activates the body to defend itself or run away, causes the person to falsely believe that they are in imminent harm. As the body reacts, physical energy manifests within the body, which needs to be processed physically. Talk therapy alone will not address the physical manifestation of anxiety.
The Power of Movement
When a child feels anxiety, they might not be ready to talk to a therapist or others about what is happening to them. They might be unable to get the words out or just talk it through. As parents, we can guide our kids through this difficult time by dealing with the physical symptoms of anxiety first. Before a child can rationalize the situation and realize that they are not threatened, they need to feel calm and safe. When a child is in a heightened state of fear, we cannot just tell them to calm down or relax on command. We need to guide them to this calm space.
Movement is incredibly powerful during times of intense anxiety. Any kind of movement of physical work will help the child get out of their heads and focus in the moment. They do not need to exercise, lift weights, or run around the block. Just a simple movement that requires focus, like stretching or breathwork, can be enough to calm a child when overly anxious. Exercises like these can help calm a child’s nervous system, which can then enhance a talk therapy session.
Being Mindful of the Energy We Bring
We cannot calm a person down when we are worked up or frustrated ourselves. When our child refuses to get out of bed due to social anxiety, and we need to get them ready for school so that we can get to work, we might need to take a step back and calm ourselves first. The energy we bring into this situation is more important than what we do in response.
As humans, we tend to react to each other’s energy and respond in kind to match. When we bring a lot of nervous energy to someone struggling with anxiety, we strengthen the resolve of their anxiety. Their feelings of high alert will only increase to match ours, which may result in more resistance, an argument, or even an intense response, like property destruction or a physical altercation.
Remember that the child’s body is reacting and in survival mode as if this were a life or death situation. As a parent, we need to be the responsible adult in the room. Calling work or school to say that we will be late is not life or death; pushing off some tasks we want to finish now to later will not harm us. We can make a plan to deal with the minor consequences of needing to help our child through this moment.
If a child has an anxiety disorder, we can be proactive by anticipating moments of high stress and fear. By practicing calming techniques when our child is calm, like deep breathing, counting backward from 10, or stretching, we can remind them of these techniques when their stress levels are elevated. While talk therapy can be a helpful addition to treating anxiety, we also need to be mindful of the physical response of anxiety and other fear-based disorders.
Talk therapy can help kids with many different issues and mental health concerns. However, talk therapy might not be enough, as mental health issues often have a physical impact on us. For anxiety disorders, the mental health aspect is caused by bodily responses to perceived threats. When a child experiences anxiety, they genuinely feel that they are in imminent harm. We cannot convince them otherwise or force them to snap out of it. We first need to address the physical issues before tackling the thought processes around anxiety. We also need to be mindful of the energy we are bringing into the situation—the least calming thing we can do is command them to calm down! If your child struggles with anxiety, or related disorders, like OCD, PTSD, or phobias, Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center is here to help. Call us today at (303) 443-3343. We’re here to help your family’s fire burn brightest.