Understanding Anxiety

What is anxiety?

Everyone can feel worried and anxious at times, especially when faced with a stressful situation. However, normally when the situation that triggers our anxiety is over, the anxiety eases. But for some people, this feeling of anxiety can be ongoing, it can feel overwhelming, and can occur on a day-to-day basis.

How does anxiety present itself?

Anxiety can show up in different ways. For example, it could be a general background feeling of unease, or it may feel like a sense of dread that something bad is going to happen. When we are feeling anxious, our bodies, thoughts and behaviours can all be affected and these can manifest in one or more ways:

  • Quick, shallow breathing
  • Heart beating very fast
  • Feeling sick
  • Dry mouth,
  • Feeling unable to breathe
  • Sweating (more than normal)
  • Tense muscles
  • Shaking
  • Nausea
  • Panic attacks (where some or many of the symptoms above are felt in a very intense way)

When we feel anxious, we may or may not be aware of some thoughts or feelings which may persist:

  • Feeling preoccupied with worrying or negative thoughts
  • Feeling a constant sense of fear or of being overwhelmed
  • Withdrawing or isolating from normal activities, perhaps trying to avoid any situation that might bring on anxiety
  • A reluctance to go to school.
  • Trouble with sleeping
  • Controlling behaviours (i.e., if we can get rid of anything that might go wrong, we can relax, hence the need to control).
  • Feeling on edge or nervous
  • A tendency towards perfectionism
  • Self-harming
  • Finding it hard to concentrate

What is happening in our bodies when we feel anxious?

When feelings of anxiety emerge, our brain is interpreting a situation as a threat and is ensuring that the body gets ready to protect itself, by preparing to fight, run away or freeze. We have no control over this response, it is our body’s way of attempting to keep us safe from a perceived danger. This means that our heart will beat faster to pump blood more quickly around the body, our breathing increases, we start to sweat, we might feel shaky as the body prepares itself for action. This is a normal response to a stressful situation, and it usually eases when the triggering situation has died down. However, when this physical response within the body is set off frequently with relatively mild, day to day 'triggers' and the person is left in a more permanent state of anxiety and worry, anxiety then becomes an issue needing attention.

How to help your child if they are feeling anxious

There are ways you can help your child if they are showing some of the signs of anxiety listed above. Tell them you understand how they are feeling and would like to help and some of our suggested techniques:

  • Breath slowly together
  • Be a reassuring, calming presence, reminding them that you are here for them
  • Reassure them that they will be okay
  • Offer them physical reassurance if they want, for example a cuddle, hold hands, or a back rub.
  • Remind them that this will pass and that they are safe.
  • Encourage your child to think of a safe place and imagine they are there right now.
  • Help your child to engage their senses, think with them about what they can see, hear, touch, smell and taste. This will help them connect with their body and feel more grounded.

Strategies to help your child manage their anxiety

  • Encourage your child to try activities that help them to relax, for example, yoga, mindfulness or meditation
  • Exercise can reduce the symptoms of anxiety, so perhaps encourage your child to take regular exercise
  • Make a worry box, where your child can write down or draw their worries throughout the day. If they would like to, they could share these worries with you at an agreed time
  • Spend quality time together and give them opportunities to talk about their feelings
  • When your child is more relaxed, talk with them about their anxiety, making sure to empathise and validate their experiences
  • Think with them about whether there is anything that could be changed to make things easier for them
  • Help your child become aware of the signs they are feeling anxious, (see the signs and symptoms shown above). If your child is aware of what happens in their body when anxious, they can then try to use some of their strategies to try to help bring their system back into a calmer, more regulated state.
  • Be mindful of your own levels of anxiety; children and young people will be affected by the adults around them and their state of mind. If you do feel that you are anxious, try to take time to relax and calm yourself.

If you are a young person, there are things you can do to manage your feelings of anxiety

  • Take regular physical exercise
  • Talk to someone you can trust
  • Find activities that you enjoy doing
  • Engage in yoga, meditation or mindfulness
  • Know that you are not alone but remember to reach out to talk to someone you can trust and share how you are feeling
  • Make sure you make time for yourself and things you enjoy doing
  • Take some slow, deep breaths to steady your heart-rate
  • Make a soothing box containing things that help to calm you, which is ready for you to grab in an anxious moment. It could include a favourite scented candle, a favourite snack, calming quotes written down that you can read, such as ‘I will be okay’ or ‘I can get through this’. You could include something soft to stroke and hold, like a soft piece of fabric or a teddy. You could even put a special blanket in your box to use to cuddle yourself up in; this will help you to feel safe and contained.

Resources to help

We have designed a little booklet to offer suggestions and ideas of how to manage anxiety which you may find useful. Click here to read and try out some of our techniques.

If you feel that your child needs more support to help them with their anxiety, please visit our page Support for Families This explains how we offer 1:1 counselling sessions for children and young people and will signpost you to someone who can help.

Connecting with your child, giving them an opportunity to talk and be listened to, is important for their sense of wellbeing and can help them voice their worries or anxieties. We have created the following activities which will help you talk and listen with your child whilst enjoying each other’s company and having fun together.

This Feelings Scavenger Hunt is designed to help you and your child spend time together. It encourages your child to share their thoughts and is an important way of sharing memories as they gather various things from around the house.

The Dice Game is a simple way to chat about feelings, hopes and dreams.

Have fun with the Lego Challenge game - great for children who enjoy construction activities, this is a good project to come back to.

These Fortune Tellers are always popular with children. The first one will help your child with strategies to calm themselves if they are feeling anxious or worried while the second helps your child build their self-confidence.

Our Conversation Cards can be used to start conversations to take your child's mind off a worry or re-focus after an anxious moment.

These further activities allow you to talk to your child about things that are worrying them: Bottled Up Feelings

Talk about positive things that your child is good at: Jar of Positivity

Spend some time doing the Three Things Challenge with your child.

Resources for young people

The Mental Health Charity Mind shares some excellent ideas for supporting young people's wellbeing at this time: click here to access their resources.

Mind has also produced a very helpful guide for young people on talking to friends and family about how they are feeling.

CAMHS - (Children & Adolescent Mental Health Services) - have curated a range of resources for all ages from various mental health providers which can be accessed here.

Mindfulness for relaxation

Meditation, yoga and breathing techniques all help to calm us when we are feeling anxious - visit our Mindfulness Resources webpage and give some of our suggestions a go.

Contact us

Remember - you won’t have all the answers – no one has – but it will help your child to know that you are there for them; this in itself will help to contain your child’s fears and anxieties.

If you are concerned that you are unable to calm your child’s worries, talk to us – we are here to help: email Catherine here.