Anxiety and stress are on the rise in kids. Whether or not your child has severe anxiety, it is likely your child might be experiencing periods of stress and worry. This can cause all kinds of issues including an increase in medical problems, irritability, poor performance, and sleep difficulties. Teaching your child how to relax is a gift they will use their entire life. This article is about some ways to do that.
What you need to know
There are two parts of our nervous system that are important for understanding how to relax. One is the sympathetic and the other the parasympathetic. I have heard the sympathetic described as the accelerator and the parasympathetic the brakes. Since stress and anxiety is foot on the gas, in order to relax one has to learn to step on the brakes. These two systems work as opposites. However, they are not opponents but rather balance each other.
The sympathetic branch is fast. To successfully respond to danger it must be fast. Stress, anxiety and anger are all the result of activating this rapid responder. This is why anger can be “outbursts” and anxiety can be an “attack”. This rapid response is often called the “fight-or-flight” response. When this activates it takes over your body and makes you super-charged. This is great if you are racing down the field trying to score a goal or escaping a potentially dangerous situation. Not so much if you are sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher.
Some of the physiological processes impacted by this rapid responder are breathing, muscle tension, blood flow/heart rate and thinking. The respiratory response is to escalate breathing rates in order to pump more oxygen into the system. Muscles tense and are flooded with resources. Blood flow is changed so that vessels toward the skin’s surface and extremities (arms, legs, head) shrink so the blood is rerouted to the muscles and abdomen. Thinking narrows and becomes hyper-focused on the immediate problem. It is key to understand this because in order to relax you have to oppose these reactions by activating the balancing system.
While the sympathetic system is rapid, the parasympathetic is comparatively much slower. No one has ever had a “relax attack”. In other words, you can freak out in seconds but need some time to chill out. It will take practice. It will get quicker. If a child is stressed day in and day out for a long time activating that part of the system is an easy habit. Begin able to apply the brakes with enough stopping power means you have to practice it enough to do it quickly with enough clout to stop the acceleration.
What to do
Anxiety and stress are counteracted by doing the opposite of what seems commanded. For example, if you have been hyperventilating and now feel like you can’t get air the anxiety commands, “Take a breath!” In fact, you need to do the opposite and exhale. Your lungs are over-inflated and you have too little CO2 in your blood stream. So the first steps in learning relax are counteracting the rapid response system.
Let’s consider breathing first. Just as hyperventilating will activate the fight or flight response, slow deep breathing will activate the calming or resting system. There are a number of ways to practice this and most people may have to try a few different ways to learn to breathe in a way that will relax them. Sometimes when people are used to stress-breathing they have a hard time switching. They might feel short of breath or uncomfortable when they switch. Just keep in mind changing and relaxing will take practice.
A quick internet search will display a lot of resources about relaxation breathing. Briefly here are four exercises from a WebMD article. Please read the article for detailed instructions.
- Belly Breathing. Place one hand on your chest and one on your belly just below your ribs. Take a deep breath through your nose and let your belly push out. Try not to move your chest.
- 4-7-8 Breathing. One hand on chest and one on belly as in number 1. Take a slow, deep breath and silently count to 4. Hold while you count to 7. Exhale completely so all the air is out by a count of 8.
- Roll Breathing. Practice belly breathing through 8 to 10 cycles. Then after you inhale with your belly muscles continue to inhale in your upper chest. Exhale slowly by emptying lower lungs followed by upper lungs. The goal is that the movement of your belly and chest will rise and fall like rolling waves.
- Morning Breathing. From standing position bend at your waist and let your arms dangle to floor. Inhale slowly and deeply as you return to standing, lifting head last. Hold for a few seconds and repeat.
Next let’s consider the bodies muscular system. The muscles tense up and are charged with resources under stress. Another way to relax is to learn to let go of the tension in your muscles and start the process of stretching and loosening. An excellent technique for this is progressive relaxation. Here is a good online step-by-step guide. Progressive relaxation involves initially tensing large muscle groups for a few seconds, releasing suddenly and allowing the muscles to relax. You move through each muscle group until your whole body is relaxed. I would recommend you either record or get a recording of the steps so you don’t have to stop the process to read each step.
Another option is using the imagination. For example, imagining your muscles getting heavier and heavier. Allowing gravity to gently pull them down as they get softer and heavier. You might imagine yourself deflating with each exhalation. You could start with your legs and each time you breathe out your legs deflate and sink down. Then move to the next muscle groups: arms, hips, head, and abdomen. Again, I would strongly recommend you record this and use some relaxing music. There are a lot of recordings and apps available online for this if you would prefer something already prepared. We include these in our Turnaround program especially for children.
Another variation of using your imagination to relax is slowing down your thoughts. Whatever is in your mind just slow it down. If it is pictures, slow down the movie, if words, slow them down and even drop the pitch do a deeper voice. As you think of your arms you can say, “Slow, heavy, warm” and use your thoughts to direct your body.
Next let’s address the cardiovascular system. Since the blood vessels constrict during the fight or flight response the temperature on your skin’s surface drops. (Know anyone with freezing hands?) If you warm up the hands, arms, legs or feet the blood vessels expand and counteract the stress response. You can imagine your hands (or feet) stuck in warm sand at the beach and feel them getting warmer. If you want to get techy you can get a thermometer that you can attach to your fingers and get immediate feedback as you make your hands warmer. Usually, if you succeed at this your entire body will relax.
Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches work as systems. If you activate one part you begin to activate it all. So if you warm your hands you activate the entire calming response. If you hyperventilate you activate the whole danger response.
Much of the alarm system is controlled or managed by our thinking. In the alarm state thinking becomes hyper-focused, narrowed and searching for danger. Everything else is ignored. When I say ignored I mean literally excluded from consciousness, considered irrelevant and even invisible. When I asked on young client about a school worry she said she was afraid she would forget her books. I asked her if she had done this and she said once right at the beginning of the school year. It is early November as I write this. That means she has remembered her books about 45 times. When she worries that is left out.
Learning to adjust and challenge that thinking will reduce stress and anxiety. For example, you can learn to challenge whether or not something is really dangerous. There are several very common thinking errors that are often the source of worry and anxiety. Here is a list you can use to help guide your thinking.
As I have previously mentioned learning to relax is a slower process and requires more work. Getting anxious or stressed is a piece of cake! Here are a few things that are essential to learning this skill.
- Repetition. If you listen to a nice relaxation tape one time it will have very little effect. Remember that stress is practiced over and over. Anxiety demands your complete attention so you if can’t relax automatically and quickly, the stress will win every time. You have to practice it over and over until you body can drop quickly on command into a relaxed state. In fact, you have to practice every day for several weeks before you will really get the true benefit.
- Persistence. When you start to exercise it is slow going. You don’t see much result. In fact, you get some serious aches and pains. There is more cost than benefit. This is when most people abandon it. It takes serious will power to keep it up (Except for all you people who have so much juice you have to exercise – that’s not fair by the way). There is a point in time when things change. You have less resistance to the idea and if you keep it up you will start looking forward to it. You will notice how much easier it becomes and how your performance jumps. Same with relaxation. Most of us have to make ourselves practice relaxing!
- Focus. Watching TV is not learning to relax. While it may calm you down (I don’t care what anyone says it can give you a break from your own brain sometimes!) it will not have the same impact. To activate the calming response on command you have to practice getting completely relaxed. All the major muscle groups, slower and deeper breathing, warming your body’s surface and a calm mental state. This requires attention and focus to each of these aspects of your experience.
- Motivation. When the body is stressed or anxious it is on high alert. It is very determined to find danger. This can come across as vigilance or a strong startle response as well as general worry or anxiety. When you try to stop the vigilance expect some resistance. The brain basically thinks if I relax then the bad thing will happen and I won’t be able to prevent it! That is one reason why it takes motivation and persistence. If you can’t push through the initial resistance you won’t succeed. Isn’t this true in any discipline of life if not anything really worth doing? The first part is always the hardest.