Anxiety is generally described as our body’s natural response to stress. It is a feeling of fear or apprehension about what’s to come. It is considered to be a normal part of the human experience and, BC (Before COVID), it was most commonly linked to occasional events like the first day of school, going to a job interview or giving a speech.
“In today’s world, most of us are living in a heightened state of anxiety. Endless worries, lingering uncertainty, the upheaval of everyday life, coupled with reduced social interactions, countless unknowns, difficult decisions and so much more, combine to elevate the level of anxiety we bear on any given day,” LifeSkills Child and Family Therapist Londa Stockton said.
Although a small amount of anxiety can serve to be motivating, chronic anxiety can interfere with our quality of life. While mostly recognized for emotional and behavioral changes, anxiety can also impact our physical health.
Some symptoms adults might experience include difficulty concentrating, panic attacks (with possible heart palpitations, chest pain and lightheadedness), increased blood pressure, depression, headaches, irritability, pounding heart, breathing difficulties, upset stomach and extreme fatigue.
Stockton said children tend to pick up on parental anxiety, which may cause them to be anxious as well.
“In children, anxiety can also take many forms,” Stockton said. “Some things to look for are complaints of headaches, stomach aches, being extra jumpy or on edge, difficulties sleeping, experiencing nightmares, not eating properly, quick to anger, extra irritable, increased crying and emotional (sometimes uncontrollable) outbursts.”
Stockton described a grounding technique that often works to calm children.
“Adults can do this as well,” Stockton said. “It can help to reconnect with the present, calm the distress of an emotional state or situation and encourage rational, instead of emotional, thought.”
Known as Five-Four-Three-Two-One, this exercise is easy. Simply guide your child (or yourself) to look around and find:
Five things you can see.
Four things you can touch.
Three things you can hear.
Two things you can smell.
And one thing you can taste.
Stockton said another effective calming technique that is often dismissed or overlooked is deep breathing.
“People say they breathe all the time, what’s the difference?” Stockton said. “The difference is that this is a mindful, focused and slow exercise. We can do it pretty much anywhere when we start to feel anxiety building. Close your eyes. Breathe in deeply and slowly through your nose. Breathe out through your mouth. Clear your mind of thought. Concentrate only on your breath, nothing else. After a bit you will literally feel the tension leave your body and your muscles begin to relax.”
Stockton uses a similar exercise with children but asks them to pretend to smell a flower when they deeply inhale and blow out birthday candles or blow up a balloon when they exhale.
Another method Stockton often uses to reduce stress is to verbally guide adults and children alike in taking a mental vacation.
“The goal is to immediately remove them from activities, thoughts or environments they associate with current worries or anxiety. It begins with a visual aid, so I’ll ask them to think of a place they love and picture it in their mind. The beach, as an example,” Stockton said. “I’ll have them close their eyes and imagine the warmth of the sun on their skin. The feel of the gentle ocean breeze blowing through their hair. The cool, moist sand squishing between their toes. The rhythmic sound of waves crashing against the shore. The light of the sun dancing on the water. The cawing of sea gulls. The smell of ocean water in the air and the taste of salt. The sight of boats on the horizon, etc.”
LifeSkills therapist Hillary Bacon works in the outpatient-based opioid treatment program. Most of her clients deal with anxiety and depression on a regular basis. When asked to contribute some stress-reducing exercises, Bacon shared a favorite she likes to call “Inside Out.”
“I ask my clients to get creative and think back to when they were young, maybe 10 or 12 years old,” Bacon said. “What did you love? What did you enjoy doing more than anything? What were you most passionate about? It’s not typically something we ever think about after we are all grown up. If it’s dancing, for instance, I’ll tell them to make an effort to reconnect with it somehow. Watch a movie, a show or a video about dance, listen to dance music or read a book about it. Or, just turn on some music and get up and dance. It sparks joy and brings back good memories. We tend to lose sight of who we were at that age before the world hit us, and it’s fun and a great escape to get reacquainted with our inner child. I find this exercise to be soothing from the inside out.”
Other ideas Bacon shared were to practice “daily affirmations” by writing a list of things you are thankful for and/or positive things you believe to be true about yourself and taping it to the bathroom mirror.
“Read this list aloud to yourself each morning,” Bacon said. “Giving voice to it helps it resonate with you throughout the day.”
Bacon also recommends joining support groups online, journaling and getting outside each day for some fresh air.
“I strongly suggest that people get off social media,” Bacon said. “It can be extremely negative, depressing and anxiety inducing. Instead, why not try just five minutes of meditation a day, if you can’t commit to more. Five minutes a day adds up over the weeks.”