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
  • 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)
  • 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

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.
  • Encourage your child to try activities that help them to relax, for example, yoga, mindfulness or meditation.
  • 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
  • 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.

Separation Anxiety

Another type of anxiety is known as ‘Separation Anxiety’. Being distressed when separating from a parent or carer is usual behaviour for infants and very young children and is known as separation anxiety. It develops at the age of about 6 months and can last until about the age of three or four. However, for some children, this can persist for much longer, and can become an ongoing concern. We are finding that lately there are more and more children who are suffering from separation anxiety than ever before.

But why is this happening?

  • Throughout the pandemic, children may have experienced more fear and anxiety in the household. They may have experienced their parents or carers not being okay and not being as robust as usual. This will in turn have had an effect on their sense of safety in the world and they may fear that they, and you, won’t be okay when you are apart from each other.
  • They may have even experienced the death of a loved one and because of this, there may a fear that they will also lose you.
  • There may be an underlying anxiety that once you leave them in the morning, that you won’t think about them, and they will be forgotten.
  • Sometimes, separation anxiety can be triggered by other stressful events, such as the loss of a beloved pet, divorce of parents, or moving home or school.
  • Sometimes, parents themselves may be anxious about leaving their child, perhaps struggling with the feeling that they won’t be okay without you. Try to remember to have faith in your parenting skills and that if you have provided your child with a good foundation, you will have given them enough to separate and become autonomous.

Some tips and techniques if your child is struggling to separate

  • When you bring your child to school, let them know that you will be thinking of them and holding them in mind throughout the day.
  • Let them take something of yours into school to ‘look after’ for you. They could keep it in their bag, but just to know it’s there might offer them some comfort and a feeling of being close to you.
  • Talk about what you will do together later when school is finished.
  • Create goodbye rituals, for example three kisses and a cuddle. Don’t extend your goodbyes as this prolongs the anxiety and worry.
  • Be consistent, try to do the same drop off with the same rituals at the same time each day. Routine can allow your child to build up trust in their independence.
  • Talk to your child in a warm, positive voice. Let them know what will happen when you are not there and remind them of all the fun things that they will do at school. Your positive tone will send reassuring messages to your child.
  • Aim to always return when you say you will.
  • Perhaps there is a beloved teddy or blanket of theirs, that they could take with them during separations, to help ease their anxiety.
  • Help your child to build up tolerance to being away from you, for example take them on a playdate whilst you sit in another room.

How to promote autonomy and resilience in your child.

Encouraging your child to develop a healthy sense of autonomy and resilience, will help them to eventually grow into a confident, independent adult. Parents who support the development of autonomy, are involved in their child’s life, but at the same time are encouraging their independence and problem-solving skills. Here are some suggestions of ways to support your growing child’s autonomy and independence.

  • Give your children the security, space, and support to try out new things. Try to encourage your child to take their own initiative with tasks etc, rather than doing things for them. This will help them to build up trust in their own abilities.
  • While parents may want their children to embrace the same values as they hold, or live in the same way that they do, it is important to recognise that they are unique individuals with their own thoughts and opinions.
  • Any perceived ‘failures’ could also be reframed as ‘life’s lessons’ or as new challenges to overcome.
  • Give your child responsibilities for specific activities, for example, feeding the family pet or hoovering their bedroom. This is showing your child that you trust them, which in turn will enable them to have more trust in themselves and their own abilities.
  • Validating your child’s feelings and viewpoints.
  • Try to adopt a more collaborative parenting style. When we control too much, it is harder for children to develop greater autonomy and independence.
  • Allow our children and adolescents to make their own choices.
  • Whilst it is challenging to ‘rescue’ our children when they come across a challenge, it is better to perhaps think through ideas together, and maybe list possible solutions. Then offering guidance when required, but at the same time encouraging the young person to problem solve independently.

Resources to 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 a little booklet to offer suggestions and ideas of how to manage anxiety which you may find useful. Click here for our Toolbox of Ideas to help with anxiety.

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.

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.