5 Tools to Cope with Anxiety at Home and School by Susan Giurleo, PhD

The one issue we probably focus on the most in our practice is helping kids and families cope with anxiety. It’s a stressful world out there and it can be hard to manage all the demands calmly.
And while anxiety can be overwhelming, it’s an issue that we can often cope with when we have a few tools/skills at our disposal to use when we feel the tightness, panic and jitters coming on.
It’s all in your head
Anxiety can feel all encompassing, complete with uncomfortable thoughts, racing heart, sweating, sick stomach, headache. However the way to cope is all in your head. In many cases you can “out think” your anxiety and tell it to take a hike and instead fill your mind with calming thoughts which will lead to a calmer body.
This approach is what cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is all about. We work on our cognitions (thoughts) and how they impact our behavior. The theory goes, “Change your thoughts, change your feelings and behavior.” It’s an amazing skill once we learn to harness its power.
An Important Note
Sometimes our brain chemistry leads us ot feel anxious for no reason. While the techniques outlined below can be extremely helpful, for some people they are not enough. If  your child has tried CBT and practiced coping skills with little relief in symptoms, it may make sense to get a psychotropic medication evaluation. The right medication can make a big difference in anxiety relief and allow your child to better access their coping skills.
The 5 Ways to Cope with Anxiety
Ultimately, coping with anxiety requires two main factors:
  • An understanding that thoughts are powerful.
  • We can use our brains to “out think” our anxiety.
This is a powerful realization that can help us feel more in control.
With that in mind, here are 5 ways to cope with anxiety anywhere you are—home, school, out in the community.
  1. Deep breathing. When we are in the grips of anxiety, our whole body freezes up. Our brain pushes us to feel that we either need to fight our way out of our anxiety, or flee away from it (this is often referred to as “fight or flight”). The best remedy for feeling like we want to run away or fight a tiger is to take slow, deep breaths. Physiologically it is very difficult to stay highly agitated when we are breathing in lots of oxygen, filling our lungs  and breathing out. The body and brain immediately registers this as a sign that the threat is gone and it can relax. Deep breathing requires no special skills, costs nothing, and you carry it everywhere you go. If your child is in the grips of anxiety, offer to breathe with them, but don’t make it stressful by counting as you breathe or asking them to breathe a certain way. Just slow breath in, slow breath out, repeat until the relaxation begins.
  2. Thought switching. When we are anxious, we are thinking negatively. We are worried about a bad outcome, we fear something in the future. Most likely, our brain is playing tricks on us. Things may not be ideal, but they aren’t as bad as we are thinking. A quick way to get perspective is to thought switch from a negative thought to a positive one. For example, a high school freshmen can’t sleep because she is anxious about an upcoming test tomorrow. Her thoughts are, “I am going to fail. If I fail I’ll get a bad grade and then fail the whole class!” A thought switch would sound like this, “I studied hard for the test and I will do my best. I may not get 100%, but I won’t fail. If I do poorly I can ask to retake it or get extra points in another way.” Thought switching can take some practice, but after a time it can become automatic and minimize heightened anxiety.
  3. Relaxation visualization. Ever feel like you just want to get away from all the stress in your life? You may not be able to get on a plane and hightail it off to Hawaii,but you can do there in your mind. We often ask kids to imagine their favorite place in the world, or a safe place or a fun place and we practice visiting there in our minds. Personally, I place myself on a beach under the hot sun when I feel anxious and need to get away. This process shifts our brain from thinking negative, anxiety-producing thoughts, to imagining something positive and shifting away from fight or flight.
  4. Be a detective. Anxiety lies to us. It tells us that things are scary and bad, when they are objectively no all that bad. I often ask clients to “be an detective” and look for evidence that things are really as scary as they think. I ask them “what is the evidence that…..thunder will hurt you, the elevator will break down, the teacher hates you?” It can help to have an detective notebook where kids can write down their evidence and see it objectively.
  5. Exercise. When your body feels like it wants to fight or flee, often it’s a good idea to burn off some of that adrenaline. A brisk walk, quick run, throwing some punches into a bag or pillow can all feel great when we are anxious. Even better is building regular exercise into the daily routine, so anxious feelings don’t build up. Exercise is good for body and brain always.
Anxiety can feel like it controls us, but the power to manage anxiety is all in our head. We can teach ourselves and our children to manage anxiety with a lot of deep breathing and some practiced coping techniques. And, remember, if using coping skills isn’t helpful enough, see your doctor to discuss possible medication options.
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