Anxiety is a normal part of life. Taking an exam, meeting with your boss, starting a new school year, and trying out a new activity may elicit anxiety. Most people at some point in their lives experience anxiety. Sometimes, rather than hurling yourself into a swimming pool, a healthy dose of “what if” can be helpful. Anxiety that is persistent, very intense and interferes with daily function is where there is a concern.
Anxious children conduct their lives as if they are in a fire station. They are waiting for the next alarm to sound and the next disaster to happen. They live in what we call “fight or flight mode”. We were all created with a built in emergency system that prepares us for quick action to fight, flee, or freeze when necessary. This emergency system is there to protect us and alert us to danger. Is this emergency system helpful? Well, that depends. When the emergency system is working correctly, it is a gift to our children. Our child’s inborn alarm system alerts them to protect themselves from dangerous people, places and circumstances. In these instances, we want our child to be aware of the signals their body is giving them and to trust themselves that something is actually wrong. The physiological response that results from anxiety is alerting them that they need protection. The last thing we would want to do is shut that down before carefully listening and exploring it’s message. That would be the equivalent of ignoring a functioning smoke alarm when there is an actual fire. There is another possibility though, the physiological response children may get from a perceived threat and not a real danger. Our system is so conservative and set up to protect us, that sometimes “it’s a one size fits all policy” even when there isn’t an actual threat the body responds the same way. In this situation, listening to the anxiety would be paying attention to a faulty smoke alarm that is ringing when a pot is simply boiling. Do you see the difference? In one situation we would help our child to listen to the message their body is giving them. While in the other scenario we would help our child to identify the false alarm and prepare not to listen to the message being given. Often anxiety can be a mixture and a result of both real and perceived threats and doesn’t always fit so neatly into a box. For the false alarms, cognitive behavioral therapy is the “go to” approach used to combat them. This approach challenges the false alarms and in many different ways teaches children to identify and respond to the “false or irrational” thoughts and replace them with more helpful ones.
Books such as “What to do When Your Children Worry” and “Outsmarting worry” by Dawn Huebner can be very helpful. At times anxiety symptoms may be a piece of another puzzle and then the response should look very different or needs to be understood as part of a larger more complicated picture. Anxiety can be a result of autism spectrum disorders, trauma, ADHD, or learning issues. Those are just a few examples of issues that could cause anxious symptoms. In many situations sorting these pieces out can get complicated and requires an experienced clinician to collaborate with the child’s caregivers and make sense of the anxiety.
Written by: Brochie Weinberg, MS, LPCC
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor