Childhood Anxiety

Dr. Tonya Pasternak & Dr. Craig Fasullo

These are stressful times. In our modern world, the onslaught of information rarely ceases, and as a result we are expected to be available for others to an unprecedented degree. As adults, we each spend each day navigating and multitasking our way through a remarkable amount of to-do’s – physical, mental, emotional, and increasingly digital, with increasing pressure to maintain online and social media presence.

Not surprisingly, the sense of overwhelming stress is not limited to adults. Our children are increasingly susceptible to the effects of mounting societal pressures, with the added factor of having even fewer learned mechanisms with which to deal with them. Perhaps the notion of a fancy free and idyllic childhood has always been more nostalgia and storybook than reality, but no one can deny the significant change that smart phones and tablets have had on children’s lives. The typical stressors of school, relationships, family matters and thoughts about the future are all valid stressors, but they are now amplified multifold.

Indeed, the number of children and adolescents who struggle with anxiety is remarkably high. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, rates of diagnosed anxiety disorders among children age 13-17 are 38% for girls and 26% for boys – and these are only the cases significant enough to warrant a doctor visit and diagnosis! Of course, with this emotional stress, it is not uncommon for other areas of their health to be affected as well. Grades, social skills, nutritional status, digestion and sleep can all decline in the face of elevated anxiety. These years of a individual life are so delicate and vital in terms of paving the path for a healthy future so as physicians, parents, teachers and mentors it is of utter importance to support the emotional wellbeing of the younger generations.

It is never too early or too late to start teaching stress reduction techniques to children, however the sooner in life the better. Below is a list of tools that are safe for all ages and easy to incorporate into everyday life. More information on each can be found online, in books, or through your health care provider.

  1. Take a “Noticing Walk”: The practice of mindful awareness is just as powerful for children as it is for adults. Harness a child’s natural curiosity by engaging in a slow walk paying close attention to all the details, large and small, in the surrounding area. Choose a natural area like a park or hiking trail. Research shows that spending time in nature has a measurable calming effect on the brain. Make it a regular habit, and leave your cell phones at home for a fully engaged, calming experience.
  2. Diaphragmatic Breathing: Our breath and nervous system is directly linked. When we get anxious our breathing and heart rate quicken and when we relax they slow down. This works both ways, meaning if we intentionally slow our breathing then our heart rate will slow down as well – shifting to a more relaxed state. Diaphragmatic breathing, sometimes called belly breathing, is a technique used for its relaxing effects. The focus is on slow shallow breaths that cause expansion of the “belly” upon inhalation. Have your child lie down and place an object on his/her abdomen. Practice breathing in such a way that fully moves it up and down.
  3. Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT/Tapping): EFT or tapping is the practice of repeated tapping on various acupressure points of the body to create a shift out of fight or flight into a more relaxed nervous system state. Doing so alters the signals to the brain in such a way that decreases negative emotions in an incredibly powerful way. This technique is simple, free, can be done anywhere, and kids think it’s fun. It is particularly helpful for thoughts stemming from PTSD, fear or low self-esteem.
  4. Positive Affirmations: Affirmations are short sayings we repeat to ourselves as a way to bring self-awareness and remembrance to the positives in life. Negative thoughts are a part of life, but sometimes these thoughts are easy to fixate on and they impact our emotional wellbeing. Using positive affirmations is a way to switch what we are telling ourselves to more encouraging statements. It is a great way to reframe negative or dreadful thinking and to manifest a positive outlook. For example, instead of saying “I can’t do this”, try “I will do what I can.”
  5. Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy is the use of natural aromas to bring on emotional or mental wellbeing. It is effective at promoting a calming and more relaxed mood. The oils used are typically plant derived, include lavender, peppermint and chamomile, and can either be used individually or in combination. They can be diluted and applied topically, used in a diffusor, a bath, or on pieces of cloth that can be taken with you. Aromatherapy is safe, gentle, and can be used anywhere and anytime. (Take care to not apply undiluted essential oils to skin. Consult your physician before using aromatherapy with babies or young children).
  6. Craniosacral therapy: Craniosacral therapy is a gentle form of bodywork that benefits both mental and physical health. Our bodies hold areas of tension in the muscles and connective tissue that can manifest inward as stress and anxiety. By applying gentle pressure to these areas, the body can overcome such restrictions allowing the nervous system to be in its most relaxed state. This is helpful for depression, anxiety and sleep issues, as well as chronic neck tension, jaw clenching, and headaches.

If you think that your child is battling stress and anxiety, regardless of a clinical diagnosis, our physicians can help you find ways to support them toward an improved mood and better quality of life. In some cases, additional testing may be recommended, and there are numerous additional safe and effective natural treatment strategies that may be considered.

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