5 things children can do with their bodies when anxiety hits
Updated: Apr 16
Right now we are dealing with so much uncertainty, and young people are feeling this more so than ever with their day-to-day experiences having changed overnight. While experiencing anxiety at this time is an understandable response, it is also very overwhelming to the child when that wave hits, no matter what their age is. It is important that we explain to children about the mind-body connection and give them tools to manage their bodies when they feel those sensations.
It is helpful to explain anxiety like the body’s alarm system. When there is danger, it sets off an alarm inside our bodies that tells the body to GET READY to ‘fight, flight or freeze’. Some of the ways our body gets ready includes our hearts beating faster, we start breathing faster or feel that we can't breath, our legs/arms feel tingly, we feel like we can’t speak, our stomachs get really tight, sore or feeling like there are butterflies in it or feeling like a volcano has exploded inside us. However if the danger is not something that we actually have to fight off or run away from, or if the ‘danger’ is thoughts we are worried about (like COVID 19 or what will happen to us), our bodies can’t tell the difference, and still get us all ready in those ways. And sitting with those feelings and physical sensations can be really hard for children, especially if they don’t know what is going on.
Once they understand what is happening to their bodies, there are many tools we can use to help calm the body. These are my top 5 tools:
1. Do something physical! While we may be home bound during the lock down, we can still run on the spot, do jumping jacks, hop on one leg, go up and down the stairs and many other activities that don’t need a lot of space.
2. Dance, sing or hum it out. Put on some headphones or involve the whole family. Find some options on Youtube or make a playlist together for moments like this. All these movements will get that energy out of the body.
3. Deep pressure touch. This can be very calming for the body. Maybe you get a tight hug and a hand/foot squeeze, from yourself or from someone you trust, or to roll up tightly in a blanket (a burrito blanket) or squeeze a teddy tightly. Try out different ideas with your child to find what works for them.
4. Get busy. Like some people find organizing and cleaning a good outlet when feeling stressed, encourage your child to assist you with a task that can be a healthy distraction. Some ideas could be cooking dinner together, working in the garden, playing a game or sorting laundry. This keeps them company and distracted while we get the body to use up some of that extra energy.
5. Start breathing. The breath is almost always affected when this alarm goes off. But the breath is also one of the fastest ways to switch off that alarm too. You can try belly breathing, where your child lies down and places a stuffed toy or small pillow on their stomach. When they breathe in, they need to expand their bellies to make the toy rise and when they breathe out, they need to deflate their stomach all the way to make the toy come down. Another option is box breathing. This is where you breath in for 4 seconds (making the stomach big), hold the breath for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds (deflating like a balloon) and hold for 4 seconds. Repeat both exercises at least 3-4 times.
You and your child may do a bit of trial and error to see what feels most helpful to them at the time. The more they are exposed to different options and tools, they more they understand their own bodies, their emotions and how they can help soothe themselves when feeling overwhelmed. We can’t stop ourselves or our children from feeling anxious, especially right now when there are things to be anxious about, but we can build up a tool box of ways in which we look ourselves when those feelings hit and build our resilience.