What is the fuss about Anxiety?

Written by Sensory Matters

Published 7 Jun 2022

Anxiety is almost everywhere we turn at the moment. As parents, we are stressed, and so are our kids!

There is a lot going on – at work, home, and at school. Added to this mix has been the demand for constant flexibility, compounded by less social interaction, less movement, and fewer opportunities for regulation. It’s actually no surprise we are struggling.

Many children that we are currently working with are struggling with anxiety and we see this in their behavior.

How you may ask?

  • Sleep challenges – struggling to fall or stay asleep or wanting to sleep with parents or with the light on.
  • Feeding challenges – when we are in a state of chronic stress, our digestive systems are ‘switched off’ so our kids may want to snack all day for energy and not really have a healthy appetite.
  • Reactivity – meltdowns are often the order of the day…. Being in a state of hypervigilance and over-reactive to seemingly small things (resulting in fight/flight/freeze responses) with less ability to use words to communicate needs.
  • Attention – often inattentive and on the go.
  • Behavior – seeking movement and fidgeting, or appearing frozen.
  • Skill delays – avoidance of situations that can lead to less time spent playing, and learning. This is often resulting in delays in various skills needed for mastering childhood.

These are signs that the body may be in FIGHT/FLIGHT or FREEZE. Although we may not classify our children as being victims of trauma – constant stress and anxiety can feel like trauma to the body (micro-traumas). The image below demonstrates this reactive response beautifully.

Perhaps you can recognize your child – or yourself – in one of these images?! These responses are normal protective responses to situations when the body is in a state of stress – although they are not always effective, or fun to deal with as a parent and experienced as a child.

Below is another diagram that shows how your body may feel in each of these stages.


So what can we do about this?

As with so many things – there is no quick fix when we are trying to support our children (and ourselves) with difficulties in anxiety.

Firstly – try to carve out some quiet time to connect with your child and an opportunity for them to wind down – whether this be cuddling together, playing a family game, or creating a sensory corner in your home. This is called co-regulation and is a powerful tool.

Breathing works! When we are stressed, we have shallow breathing – doing exercise as well as learning how to breathe in deeply can really help to activate the parasympathetic system which calms us! Breathe in for 2 seconds and breathe out for 4 seconds. Do this 10 times.

Get some good sleep! Sleep helps us to recover from stress. It is Ironic that sleep is also made worse by stress! Try to prepare for sleep from about 2 hours before bedtime – no technology at this time! Try to create a more organized (predictable) and calm routine, spend time before bed reading / praying together and discussing the day. As OTs we often use social stories (personalized stories) that we write to help a child understand what will happen or how to respond in a stressful situation – this predictability through storytelling often helps to settle anxiety.

Catch your child doing good! We are so often focused on teaching, correcting, and just surviving, that our children often hear us saying ‘no’. Even visiting many therapists is something we do to help our children, but if not discussed can be perceived by your child as ‘there is something wrong with me.

Identify skill challenges- sometimes our children are anxious because they are struggling. Building in some support can really help. This is often a real difficulty during covid where some children missed some vital foundation skills.

Social anxiety – again thanks to covid – some children are really anxious about how to interact with peers. They haven’t had practice for a long while. For some children, this may be because of speech and language delays (we are especially seeing this in our young children whose early language development has been negatively impacted by masks).

Sometimes our children need some physical support – being in chronic stress and anxiety can leave the body depleted of necessary vitamins and minerals needed to make the neurotransmitters and hormones which manage anxiety! This may include paying attention to diet and what we are eating and looking into ways to support this. As an example – many children who are stressed may not have sufficient gut bacteria to make Gaba which helps the body manage anxiety. In addition, children who are really stressed may present with poor immunity and low levels of vitamin D and vitamin B6 which are the building blocks for stress management.

Working with an OT can help you to develop some individualized strategies through the use of a sensory diet (specific proprioceptive and vestibular-based activities) which can help to keep the body regulated. But in general rhythmic movement and hard, heavy, resistive work is organizing and calming on the body.

Sometimes OT or play therapy are vital parts of the picture – a safe place where children can identify their challenges, develop skills and practice their responses – where they can fail, try again and have fun while doing so!

 Anxiety is real and can be so debilitating. Being sensitive to signs of anxiety in yourself and/or in your child could be the key to helping them to thrive and find joy in all aspects of life.


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