Later in my career after working in children’s residential programs and after providing family counselling, I began facilitating children’s groups and groups for parents. This was and continues to be a great fit for me – like a hand in a glove! While working with numerous children, youth and their families over the years in various roles at a Children's Mental Health Centre in the GTA and doing collaborative community work with school boards and partnering agencies, I discovered a common thread – anxiety. Not only was anxiety prevalent in folks of all ages that we were wanting to support, but it was also common among helping professionals.
Okay folks – time to remove the stigma from this! Feelings and experiences of anxiety have just become common place – period – whoever you are. What is important to keep an eye on however, is the degree to which it is disrupting your life. It is one of the top reasons for referrals at children’s mental health agencies despite often being overlooked by diagnosticians. But this is not the end of the story.
As anxiety has become more and more widespread, it also became a huge area of interest for me. It made me wonder, who doesn’t feel anxious these days and what’s their secret to managing it? As I began learning more about neurodevelopment, the mind-body connection and the power of relationships, answers started to emerge. As a result, I also began training helping professionals about understanding anxiety in those they are supporting but also to be able to recognise how it impacts them personally in their practice.
I know. As readers, you are probably thinking – “oh, come on, give us at least one tip now.”
Focusing on your breathing
If I had to choose the best one because of the limited space in this blog, I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest that everyone should learn to focus on their breathing. I know this sounds cliché and it’s not a new one - but it is a good one. It’s foundational – the best place to start.
Why? First, because you always have your breath with you in any situation. Second, because we know that things like breathing and heartrate are connected to our Autonomic Nervous Systems (ANS), which become activated when our brains sense danger, consciously or unconsciously. When this happens, we feel uncomfortable in our bodies. The trick however, is finding ways to practice deep breathing and breathing awareness that is age-appropriate and suited to you. For example, young children can be directed to blow at a pinwheel making it move fast and then slow. They can blow bubbles. They can also use belly buddies - small toys placed on their tummies while they are laying on their backs taking deep breaths. The idea behind this is that they can observe their breathing by watching their bellies and their belly buddies going up and down making sure that they don’t fall off. Ask them to describe what is happening. I guarantee you that they will not be focusing on whatever they were worrying about while you are doing this with them.
Learning body awareness
More importantly, they will be learning body awareness which is crucial these days. If we learn to listen to our bodies, it will tell us whatever we need to know about regulating our emotions.
Teens and adults can do something similar by simply putting one hand on their belly and one on their chest. Again, they can observe and describe to themselves what they are seeing and feeling. What I am describing are actually known as mindfulness activities - focusing on one thing at a time in each moment with full attention and without judgement. When you get distracted, and you will, without judging yourself, just bring your attention back to your breathing. Judging ourselves makes us worry more and is a waste of energy.
Learning to observe and notice things about ourselves is a very important step towards self-awareness and self-confidence and ultimately, resilience. A lot of anxiety, for adults, youth and children can be managed when we understand how it happens. Current research tells us that we can learn to be in control of it rather than allowing it to hijack us. I also know this from personal and professional experience. More on this too in future blogs.
Interested in learning more?
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