Life Mental Health

Sunday 31 August 2014

Anxiety is consuming my child

David Coleman

Published 25/02/2014 | 02:30

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I live with my husband and three daughters and I am lucky enough to be at home with my children. My 12-year-old daughter is the middle child of my three girls. As she has grown up she has gotten more and more anxious.

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It started with her watching films like 'Jurassic Park' and 'Gremlins'.

She used to have nightmares and was never able to fall asleep, so we let her sleep beside one of her sisters. The light in her room or the landing light has to be on until she is fast asleep.

Our downstairs loo was broken for a few months last winter and she would ask me to go upstairs with her to the toilet in the evenings rather than go up on her own. I can't count the amount of times I have had to collect her from sleepovers – once in the middle of the night. My mother suffers from incredible anxiety and going out the door is a big deal for her.

She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder just over a year ago, after my father died. As a child she had all the same habits my daughter does – she was afraid to sleep on her own, had to have the light on etc. I'm afraid if we don't do anything about my daughter it will only get worse as she gets older. What should we do?

When we get anxious we get a very strong physical reaction. Adrenalin is released into our systems and this will raise our heart rates, speed up our breathing and often lead to tension in various muscles.

Ironically, the stronger our physical reaction the more anxious we will feel.

So anxiety can quickly spiral up and up as our minds and bodies take on board the signals that each other gives off.

It is this pattern that can lead to anxiety becoming more and more problematic as we get older if we never have an opportunity to learn to regulate it.

When children watch scary movies (or at least scary-for-them movies) then they will have this physiological reaction of an increased heart rate, flushing, bodily tension etc. It is really important, then, that they have some time and a strategy to calm themselves down afterwards.

Typically, they will cling to any strategy that works to reduce their anxiety for any future occasions they experience it.

So, in your daughter's case, sleeping with her sister gave her the feeling of safety and security that allowed her anxiety to drop and the adrenalin to dissipate.

At the same time, she probably also associated the landing light being on with that reduction in anxiety and greater feeling of security.

Consequently, she has come to rely on these things, particularly to reduce any anxiety that she now feels.

Her difficulty is not that she gets anxious (we all can get anxious at times) but that she hasn't learnt any effective strategies for soothing and regulating that anxiety, apart from relying on other people (to be present with her).

Often the most important thing we can give children who are anxious is a confidence that there is something they can do about their own worries. Having some effective relaxation techniques is a great way to do that.

The relaxation techniques that I prefer to teach children are abdominal breathing and guided visualisation (like a meditation). I find that they are both easy for them to do alone and very effective.

If your daughter learns relaxation techniques like these, she can also learn to use them when going to sleep if she wakes up in the night, or when doing something on her own, like going upstairs at night.

The guided visualisation technique encourages children to use their imaginations to create a warm, safe and inviting place. In my work, when I guide children in such a visualisation, I often take them on an imaginary walk in the woods to a beautiful sunny glade with water running through it where they can "rest" on a warm rock, or on the grass.

It is in this imaginary place that they can let their cares slip away and relax. This is a particularly good technique for children to use before sleeping.

I recorded this visualisation for Ryan Tubridy's radio show and it is still available as a downloadable podcast. If you type the following into your browser it will take you to the podcast:

Similarly, I also recorded all of the steps for abdominal breathing on a separate podcast for the show and that can be accessed at:

If your daughter has a phone, iPod or MP3 player then she can listen to both of these podcasts, follow the instructions, and learn to relax.

I do believe that both, or either, of these techniques will help her to combat her anxiety. Both of these techniques will significantly reduce the amount of adrenalin in her system and give her a greater feeling of relaxation.

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