Living With Anxiety – Important New Insights

Living With Anxiety - Important New Insights

We all feel anxious from time to time, but for many people, anxiety is a daily intrusion. Anxiety is driven by a strong, healthy brain that works too hard to be the fearless protector. An anxious brain is super-sensitive to threat, which means that it can often hit the panic button ‘just in case’. This is a great thing when there’s trouble about, but when it happens too often, it stops being a great thing and becomes an anxiety thing.

Anxiety is a physical response, not a chosen one. Everyone feels anxious from time to time, but it becomes a problem when it gets in the way of everyday life. Anxiety is so common, chances are that if you’re not struggling with it, someone you know or love probably is. 

Here are some discoveries from science that are helping to make sense of anxiety and offering new ways to manage it. And if you can’t trust science …

Important New Insights Into What Works.

  1. Five sessions of massage can significantly reduce anxiety. Massage. I know. You’re welcome.

    It’s often the way that the things that are super-good for us aren’t always fun to do, but then this happens – and it’s glorious, like, ‘sign me up for the rest of my life’ type of glorious …

    Research has found that five sessions of Swedish massage can significantly reduce the symptoms of anxiety, as well as a reduction in cortisol (the stress hormone). Swedish massage is one of the most common types of massage and involves the more traditional, deep tissue massaging. People diagnosed with generalised anxiety (almost constant anxiety), received two 45-minute massages a week, for six weeks. As early as the fifth session (week three), they showed a significant reduction in anxiety symptoms. There was also brought about a reduction in depression symptoms.  

    A review of previous research found that massage therapy reduces cortisol (the stress hormone) by an average of 31%. It also increases serotonin by an average of 28%, and dopamine by an average of 31%. Low levels of serotonin and dopamine are linked to anxiety.  The exact reasons for this are unclear, but the importance of touch in human mental and physical well-being is well-established. Frequent touching (wanted touching not creepy touching) has been found to improve the immune system, decrease heart rate and blood pressure, strengthen connections between people and improve well-being generally. But if massages aren’t your thing …

  2. Weighted blankets help with anxiety.

    Research has found that weighted blankets can provide relief from anxiety symptoms. They calm the nervous system in a similar way to being held. It’s no secret that the way to comfort a baby is to snuggle it in a swaddle wrap. The need for touch pressure (the type that comes from a hug or a massage) isn’t just for babies – it’s a basic human need and weighted blankets are a way to meet this need. The heaviness from the pressure of the blanket stimulates the deep pressure touch receptors in the body. This relaxes the nervous system and helps the body to feel more relaxed, grounded and safe. 

  3. Gut bacteria can cure or prevent symptoms of anxiety.

    It’s widely accepted in the scientific community that gut health is a big player in mental health. We know there are trillions of microbes that live in the intestinal tract. These send signals to the brain that can change mood and behaviour. Research published in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found that anxious mice calmed down dramatically when they ate the healthy microbes collected from the poop of calm mice (ok, gross, but clever). Mice are often used in experiments because of their biological and genetic similarity to humans (and because there are some things that, for love or money, we humans will not do). When researchers fed the stressed mice the same probiotics (live bacteria) found in the calm mice, the behaviour of the anxious mice continued to improve for several weeks afterwards.

    Gut bacteria are the rock stars of the mental health world. It’s a good thing they’re microscopic because if they were any bigger they’d be demanding leather jackets to keep them happy and speciality foods like fermen__ Oh, wait … 

  4. Fermented foods can reduce anxiety through gut bacteria.

    The healthier your gut, the healthier your mental health. A recent study found that people who tend to be socially anxious report less social anxiety if their diet contained fermented foods (which contain probiotics). 

    ‘It is likely that the probiotics in the fermented foods are favorably changing the environment in the gut, and changes in the gut in turn influence social anxiety.’ – Professor Matthew Hilimire, lead author of  the study, University of Maryland, Baltimore. 

    Fermented foods are probiotic powerhouses that work by increasing the good bacteria in the gut, the home of our ‘second brain’. They include:

    · miso,

    · yoghurt (look for the ones that say they contain live and active cultures),

    · kefir (a drinkable yoghurt, slightly more tangy),

    · sauerkraut (fermented cabbage),

    · kimchi (fermented cabbage – the Korean version), and

    · tempeh (made from soybeans – tofu’s nuttier, chewier, firmer, less processed cousin).

    A warning though – the introduction of probiotics to has to happen slowly. When probiotics kill off pathogens, they release toxins. It is these toxins that are likely to be already contributing to symptoms (depression, anxiety, physical illnesses). When probiotics are increased suddenly, the release of toxins is also increased suddenly, and whatever symptoms you’ve been struggling with couldm worsen. Gently, gently.

  5. Still on food … Omega 3 supplement reduces inflammation and anxiety.

    In a study published in the journal, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, an omega-3 supplement was found to reduce anxiety by 20% compared to a placebo. The amount of omega-3 in the supplement was about four or five times the amount of fish oil in a serve of salmon.

    The authors suggest that people should consider increasing their omega-3 through their diet. There are three types of omega-3. EPA and DHA are found in fish, particularly salmon and tuna. The Harvard School of Public Health recommends eating fish or seafood at least twice a week. The third type of omega-3 is ALA, but the body uses this mainly for energy so the conversion into EPA and DHA is very limited. ALA-rich foods are walnuts, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, leafy vegetables, meat from grass-fed animals. 

  6. There’s a song for that. Science says this is the ‘most relaxing song ever’ – and it can reduce anxiety.

    Sound therapists and Manchester band Marconi Union teamed up to produce the quintessential relaxation track using proven elements of scientific theory. The song they created is ‘Weightless’ and research by the British Academy of Sound Therapy found that it was able to lower blood pressure, slow heart rate and reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) remarkably. Research found that the song decreased overall anxiety rates by 65%, bringing participants to a level 35 % lower than their usual resting rate. The relaxation effect was evident even though participants were given a stressful task to complete in within a stressful time constraint. ‘Weightless’ is eight minutes long but the ride is a blissful one. You can listen to it here.

    A warning though – The researchers warn that the song is so relaxing, best not listen to it while driving. 

  7. Kids with anxiety benefit significantly from mindfulness because of the way it changes brain activity.

    Anxiety troubles more than one in four adolescents aged between 13 and 18. A study, published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, found that the more mindfulness kids and teens practised over a 12 week period, the more their anxiety improved. The study involved kids and teens 9 and 16. They had all been diagnosed with different types of anxiety including generalised, social and separation anxiety. The mindfulness-based techniques included meditation and yoga. After 12 weeks, there were obvious changes in brain activity:

    •  increased neural activity in the cingulate – a part of the brain involved in processing cognitive and emotional information; and

    •  increased activity in the insula – a part of the brain that is involved in emotional processing, perception, self-awareness, empathy, the ability to listen to music and how the body feels emotionally, which guides us to either approach or avoid a stimulus.

    For fun ways that kids can practice mindfulness, see here.)

  8. Mindfulness changes the structure and function of anxious adult brains too.

    In an extensive analysis of 19 separate mindfulness/anxiety studies, it was found that mindfulness was ‘associated with robust and substantial reductions in symptoms of anxiety.’ In fact, mindfulness was found to be as effective for anxiety as cognitive behaviour therapy – one of the most popular treatments for anxiety. Mindfulness changes the structure and function of the brain to strengthen it against anxiety.  To read how mindfulness changes the brain, see here. For a simple way to practice mindfulness, see here, or try the free Smiling Minds app (here you go) which has mindfulness exercises for kids to adults.

  9. Exercise. It’s a little bit magic.

    Some neurons are born with the personality of puppies – easily excited and always ready to switch on. In the right amount and at the right times, these neurons are gold. It’s because of them that we can think quickly, act quickly and remember. Too much of a good thing though, is too much. When too many of these neurons getting excited and fire up unnecessarily, anxiety can happen. To stop them getting too carried away and causing trouble, the brain has a neurochemical, GABA, which is the brain’s ‘calm down’ chemical. If the levels of GABA in the brain are low, there’s nothing to calm these over-excited neurons. 

    Exercise works by boosting GABA in the brain. Most of the substances that ease the symptoms of anxiety (alcohol, medication) also work by boosting GABA. Whatever gets your heart going counts as exercise. This will be different for everyone. It doesn’t have to mean thrashing yourself on a treadmill to the point of ‘can’t … talk …. can’t … breathe’ if talking and breathing are more your thing than running (hand goes up). A brisk 20 minute walk or 8-10 minutes of going up and down the stairs a couple of times a day will also do it. Whatever works for you. Try for something you can do at least five times a week. See here for ideas on how to get exercising when one of your favourite things in the world is ‘not exercising’.

  10. And if vigorous exercise and you are still working on your relationship …

    If you deeply committed to the belief that the words ‘vigorous’ and ‘exercise’ should be kept apart, it’s okay – science has something for you too. New research has found that non-aerobic exercise like relaxation like yoga can also ease anxiety. Relation and exercise. Now there’s a lovely pairing. Lovely.

  11. So if exercise is good for anxiety, how does ‘not moving’ stack up?

    When it comes to anxiety, not moving is not great. In a review of previous studies, researchers from Deakin University in Australia found that sitting or low energy activities can make anxiety worse. We know that exercise is hugely beneficial for anxiety because of its effect on the balance of important chemicals in the brain. It’s not surprising then, that a lack of physical activity makes anxiety worse. 

  12. Putting feelings into words can reduce anxiety.

    Using words to describe intense feelings can relieve anxiety. In a UCLA study, 88 people who were scared of spiders were asked to … wait for it … approach a massive live tarantula and touch it if they could. (What could go wrong?)

    The ones who said what they were feeling were able to get closer to the spider and showed less physiological symptoms of anxiety than those who used neutral or no words. The more negative the words, (as in ‘terrified’ rather than ‘nervous’), the greater the effect.

    Previous research has shown that verbalising feelings decreases activity in the amygdala (the part of the brain that initiates the fight or flight response) and the physical symptoms of anxiety. 

    ‘This is ancient wisdom. Putting our feelings into words helps us heal better. If a friend is sad and we can get them to talk about it, that probably will make them feel better.’ – Matthew D. Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology and a founder of social cognitive neuroscience.

    Naming an emotion seems to soothe the nervous system and allows the right and left hemispheres to work together. We know that during anxiety, the right hemisphere seems to be more active. This is the seat of emotion and feelings. The left hemisphere is dominant in words and logic. When the right hemisphere is dominating, feelings can be overwhelming and not make a lot of sense. The left hemisphere is ‘this is what’s happening’, the right hemisphere is, ‘and this is what it means for me’. When the left is brought on board (by using language), it is able to give structure and meaning to the feelings. As Marc Brackett from the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence, explains, ‘If you can name it, you can tame it.’

  13. Go on. Strike a pose. 

    Striking a power pose for two minutes will change the brain in ways that will reduce anxiety and build confidence and assertiveness. Research conducted at Harvard by Amy Cuddy found that when people expanded themselves into a high power pose for two minutes, they experienced a 20% increase in testosterone (the dominance hormone) and a 25% decrease in cortisol (the stress hormone). Higher testosterone leads to greater confidence, while lower cortisol leads to an increased capacity to deal with stress. It’s a powerful combo that together can reduce anxiety significantly.

    The best thing about this is that the pose can be done in private. It’s about the physiological changes that are triggered by the pose, not about what other people see. Any pose that increases the space your body occupies is a power pose. Think Superman with legs wide apart, hands stretched out in front, chin up, chest out. Alternatively, channelling Wonder Woman – legs apart, hands on hips, shoulders back and chest – will also have the same effect. Ditto for a starfish pose – arms and legs outstretched and wide apart. A power pose is anything that makes your physical presence bigger.

  14. An unexpected way to deal with performance anxiety.

    Research conducted at Harvard University showed that relabelling ‘anxiety’ as ‘excitement’ improved performance during activities that induced anxiety. Anxiety and excitement are similar in many ways. Both are characterised by high arousal and other physiological experiences – sweating, butterflies, racey heart. Labelling a feeling as ‘anxiety’ sets up thoughts of everything that could go wrong. Relabelling the feeling as ‘excited’ brings to mind more positive, productive thoughts of what might be.

Fascinating New Insights Into What Anxiety Does and Why.

  1. Why anxiety can trip you up when people are watching. 

    That anxious slip-up when people are watching – who hasn’t been there? Being watched during an exam, a race, or a performance can sometimes end in anguish – and it can have nothing to do with skill or knowledge. Nothing at all. People who care about what they do, tend to care about what people think. 

    Now, neuroscientists have found the part of the brain that makes anxiety spoil the party by flooring you at the worst time – when people are watching. The trouble comes from a brain network that neuroscientists like to call the action-observation network (AON). This network helps us figure out what other people are thinking or feeling based on their facial expressions and the direction of their gaze.

    The part of the brain that helps us to control our fine sensorimotor functions (inferior parietal cortex (IPC)), forms part of this network. Researchers found that the IPC receives information through the network about what other people might be thinking or feeling and uses this info to generate the best motor action for the task – or not. Here’s what happens … If we believe the people watching want us to do well, we’re more likely to perform well. But, if we pick up any negative cues from their facial expressions, eye direction or movement, the IPC shuts down and our performance hits the dirt. What this means is somebody looking at their watch while you’re speaking can be enough to give the IPC the message that they might be bored/ indifferent/ think you’re rubbish – and it will shut down. 

    Researchers suggest that the way around this is to work at believing the audience want you to do well.

    ‘It’s important to believe that the audience is supporting you and wishing for your successful performance,’ Dr Michiko Yoshie, neuroscientist and lead author of the study.

    To strengthen this belief, practice performing in front of people who you know support you. Performing in front of family or close friends will activate a positive pattern in the brain and boost confidence. Your experiences matter. 

  2. Social anxiety is genetic, but environment is key.

    One of the most exciting discoveries in psychology in the last decade or so is that the brain can change according to the experiences it is exposed to. This means that although genetics are important, they are NOT destiny. Research has found that the risk of developing social anxiety is heavily influenced by genes, but whether or not you actually have social anxiety at any given point is most strongly influenced by the environment. As with anything in psychology, something is only a problem if it causes a problem. It’s normal to worry about what people might think, but that worry tips into social anxiety when it starts getting in the way of life. It generally appears in adolescence and rarely after the mid-twenties if you’ve never had it before. It can often get better in time. The study found that two-thirds of people who had social anxiety in their twenties no longer met the criteria for diagnosis ten years later. 

    ‘Even people who have a good, secure upbringing can experience social anxiety. However, if you have an inherited risk, you can learn to defy the tendency of avoidance and know what to do if the anxiety appears. Although the genetic risk is long-lasting, it does not mean that you have to live with the symptoms. There are good treatments for social anxiety. The treatment involves exposure to the feared situations and acknowledging your anxiety.’ Fartein Ask Torvik, researcher, Department of Genetics, Environment and Mental Health, Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

  3. Anxiety interferes with decision-making. Here’s how …

    Research published in The Journal of Neuroscience explains how anxiety can roll good decision-making. The trouble happens in the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), the area at the front of the brain that is heavily involved in planning, weighing up consequences and organising thoughts in a logical, rational way to get to a good decision. Anxiety numbs a group of neurons in the PFC that are specifically involved in making choices. This interrupts the brain’s capacity to screen out distractions. The distractions can be physical (as in things in the environment) or thoughts and worries. (For ways to stop anxiety steering decision, see here.)

  4. People with anxiety see the world a little differently. Not better, not worse, just different .

    People who are living with anxiety have something in common. Their brains have a unique wiring that causes them to interpret things as harmful, even if they aren’t. The scientists call this ‘overgeneralisation’. In people who have anxiety, emotional experiences cause changes in the brain that persist even after the emotional experience is over. These changes cause difficulties in being able to tell the difference between the original experience and subsequent experiences. What this means is that rather than assessing the potential harm of things in the environment with fresh eyes every time, people with anxiety tend to overgeneralise and interpret everything as potentially harmful. 

    The differences were found in the amygdala, the part of the brain that helps keep us alive by noticing any potential threats in the environment. It is also responsible for the experience of intense emotion, and the changes that happen in the body as a result of the fight or flight response. Increased activity in the amygdala has been associated with panic attacks and anxiety.

    The researchers stress that the flexibility of the brain that leads to anxiety isn’t ‘bad’. 

    Anxiety traits can be completely normal, and even beneficial evolutionarily. Yet an emotional event, even minor sometimes, can induce brain changes that might lead to full-blown anxiety.  Rony Paz, Researcher, Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

  5. Anxiety can steer you to the left.

    Research from the University of Kent has found that anxiety can influence the direction you walk in. Not in the way a bakery at 8am can change your direction (come on – we’ve all done it), but in the way an active right brain can. People living with anxiety have more activity in the right side of the brain, which can steer them in a leftward trajectory. As part of the study, volunteers were blindfolded and asked to walk in a straight line towards a target they had already seen. The more anxious ones veered to the left. The research indicates that the brain’s two hemisphere’s – the left and the right – are associated with different systems of motivation. The right is related to inhibition, the left to approach. People who are feeling more anxious and more inhibited will have more activity in the right hemisphere which will tilt them towards the left. Who would’ve thought?

And finally …

Anxiety is so common. If it isn’t causing trouble for you or someone you love, it’s very likely that it will be for at least one person in your close circle. It’s useful then, for all of us to be a bit savvy about it. There is so much research happening around anxiety and with every new insight, we get closer to understanding more about anxiety, which brings us closer to managing it. We’re getting there. 

37 Comments

Herno

Thank you for the very helpful article! Very well written and loved the clever humor. A joy to read.

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Meg Logan

Hi there

I have only just stumbled across your site and articles, and I have to say that I am “excited” (see what I did there?!?) to read more. I am grateful for your insight and understanding as well as your practical advice. I cannot wait to listen to Weightless.

I have suffered from generalized anxiety for many years now, but I have experienced a marked increase in the severity of anxiety over the last 18 months. I contracted the Coxsackie B virus and there seems to be a strong possibility that it has triggered Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME). Being an A type personality (highly strung and a perfectionist with OCD tendencies at the best of times), I have really struggled to come to terms with my new “life” (or lack thereof!). It is a constant battle to fight the demons everyday and to accept my new limitations. I am unable to do any exercise, but I will be making a concerted effort to implement your other pieces of advice.

Thank you for your understanding of this awful condition.

Respect
Meg

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Andrea Addington

I love your articles Karen. Thank you so much! You provide such useful information for myself as a therapist and as an anxiety sufferer. I am so grateful to have found your website.

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Helen

Enjoyed reading the article ,my grand daughter suffers with anxiety ,,she is now home schooled which has helped plus she now has her own horse as looking after animals keeps her calm

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Helen thank you! I’m so pleased you enjoyed the article and that your granddaughter is finding ways to manage her anxiety. Animals can be wonderfully calming can’t they.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

You’re welcome! Weightless is pretty amazing with what it can dIt’s interesting isn’t it that something like mindfulness which has been around for so long, is now getting so much scientific attention. I love that this is happening and yes, hopefully, the more attention it gets, and the more it finds its way into our everyday lives, the better for all of us.

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Doing Good Together™

Thank you for these tips and especially for pointing out the benefits of mindfulness for children and adults. As we get more and more awareness of the benefits of mindfulness, we might see an overall change in stress levels for our society, and especially our families. Also, the song “Weightless” was indeed quite relaxing – thanks for sharing!

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monica

in so much pain-barely functional for 5 years-no meds work! Feel like giving up…

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Monica keep fighting for you. I can hear how much pain you are in and I completely understand how disheartening it is when nothing feels as though it’s working. There will be a way to feel better, it’s a matter of finding the right combination of things that work for you. Keep working with your doctor and see if you can add in some of these strategies as well. There is a way through for you. Keep going. I wish you strength and healing and hope you find some comfort soon.

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Marie

thank you, great information. Ive suffered for over 20 years with anxiety, and now my son is suffering. What helped me doesnt work for him, and people dont understand why. Also, how do I explain that my son can go to work (around the corner from our house) but cant go anywhere else. He has been diagnosed with Agoraphobia, but people dont understand it.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Marie. I hear you! One of the difficult things about anxiety is that there is no one single thing that works for everyone. That’s why having a ‘toolbox’ is so important.

It makes a lot of sense that, your son is able to go to work but can’t go anywhere else. For him, work would be familiar and contained. People with agoraphobia typically have a few places that feel safe, but other places, particularly crowded or unfamiliar or open spaces might be a no-go. Agoraphobia is a fear of crowded or open spaces, or anywhere that escape might be difficult (keeping in mind that anxiety is a heightened sensitivity to the possibility of threat or danger). This is why familiarity is so important. I wish more people were able to understand anxiety. It would make it so much easier for the people who are struggling with it. Hopefully as the research starts to widen, this will happen. I hope these strategies are able to bring some comfort to your son.

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Helen

Thankyou Karen . Your articles ( especially this one) explain a lot about my life trajectory. I was always an anxious eldest child – with the most loving parents , growing up in a happy and loving home . Mum told me that when I was 5 I asked what was a conscience . Mum explained it was when you were thinking about what what was good and right versus bad and wrong . I responded …’oh Mum I think the bad is winning’. I went on to boarding school( we lived in remote Aust) where I was a high achiever performing well in all grades. I developed Anorexia Nervosa at 16 yrs , went on to becoming a nurse and midwife( again topping my classes) and now at 65 years still working have been treated for alcohol dependency and anxiety and depression. Your article explains a lot . Thankyou Karen.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Helen. I’m so pleased the article has helped to bring more clarity for you. Your experience makes a lot of sense – a high achiever, a creative, deep thinker – these are the wonderful strengths of an anxious mind. It sounds like your anxiety as also brought you pain, as anxiety can too often do. We’re learning more and more about how an anxious mind works and how to strengthen it to stop anxiety being so intrusive. I wish we knew these things a long time ago – perhaps it could have eased your path a little. I hope you are able to keep healing and moving forward. Know that there is remarkable strength in you.

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Paige

Thank you so much for your website and articles. They are very helpful to me and my family. All best to you!

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Valerie

This is my favourite blog! I really appreciate your articles on anxiety. I find your writing so practical and easy to read. Thanks for all the tips and insights.

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Kerrie

It always kinda blows me away how simple, yet effective and articulate your articles are. Thank you, not just for this article, but for all if them. I get more out if these than I do from my counselling sessions.
I just now clued in to the fact that my anxiety has been a lot more under control since I made yogurt a daily part of my diet.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Thanks Kerrie. I’m so pleased the articles are helpful for you! It makes a lot of sense that your anxiety has settled since you’ve been eating yogurt regularly. Sometimes the little things can make so much difference.

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Mary

I love the insights you’ve shared! I feel mild-ish anxiety that I’ve never really worked to change because it hasn’t too badly affected me, but my daughter has seriously high anxiety and depression that have become worse and worse from age 12 (she’s now 14). I have read about several of the points you mention, but this article is so comprehensive and clear it makes me feel hopeful we can implement some changes. I’m gushing now, but I’m excited that it is an enjoyable read so that I can have my daughter read it, too. Thank you!

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Mary you’re so welcome! I’m so pleased that the article has brought some hope for your daughter. It’s not unusual for anxiety to worsen with adolesence (which starts at around 12-ish).

What happens is, as part of adolescence teens go through massive brain changes. They get about a billion new neurons to give them the brain power to learn the skills they need to develop through to adulthood as healthy, capable, beautiful adults. The problem is that the brain doesn’t develop evenly during adolescence. It develops and strengthens from the back to the front. It begins with the instinctive, anxiety-triggering, emotional amygdala and the final part to develop (in the early 20s) is the calming, rational, logical pre-frontal cortex.

This means that for a while, the amygdala at the back of the brain will be dominant in decisions and behaviour. This happens for all teens, which is why they can seem to become more emotional or aggressive as they hit their teens, but for your daughter, it sounds like it’s anxiety. The part at the front of the brain that is able to soothe the amygdala and calm down any unnecessary anxiety won’t be fully developed until around the early 20s so it’s influence at the moment isn’t as strong. The strategies in the article will really help things along and help her brain to strengthen against anxiety. The brain doesn’t only change as a part of natural development, it also changes with the experiences it is exposed to. This is why things like meditation or mindfulness, exercise etc are so imporant in managing anxiety. You sound like a wonderful support for her. She’ll be okay. This is a great opportunity for her to influence the way her brain develops and learn really important coping skills that will hold her strong for the rest of her life.

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Mary

Thank you for your kind words, explanations, and encouragement. I appreciate the help and hope I feel through your articles. It is amazing to look at all this emotion from a scientific perspective.
Mary

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Nadia

Thank you so much Karen for your excellent article.
I immediately posted it on my FB Group “Emotion Healing Mastermind Forum” and sent it to a few of my coaching clients.

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Barbara

Thank you Karen for this article. I am in my 60’s and have suffered from anxiety and depression, especially social anxiety since I was a child. I’ve been in therapy, taken medication, and tried some of the things you mention but without consistency. I am struggling with it right now, particularly at work where I’ve withdrawn to the point going to work is an agony for me. It is debilitating! I am going to pull several of your tools together and see if I can get some relief!

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Gill

Iv’e just come across this article and found it very interesting and helpful.
Barbara I just wanted to say please don’t feel alone ,I’m sorry life is a struggle for you at the moment and I just wanted to send you a big hug.It’s a lonely battle at times but we keep on battling 🙂

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Barbara I’m sorry you your anxiety is causing you so much pain at the moment – I wish nobody had to struggle like this. I so pleased that you are going to try some of these. I feel really hopeful for you. Think of it like drops in a bucket. It will be hard to notice the difference with one drop, same with two or three, but over time (weeks or months) those drops add up and the difference will be visible. Keep going. Love and healing to you.

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juliette rogers

I so thank you for providing these helpful suggestions (except regular exercise – impossible) and informing us about the work on understanding anxiety. I am riddled with it, from the time I wake up until I finally get to sleep. It’s so interfering, extreme and debilitating! You should hear my breathing! The chronic, crazy behaviors that have developed from it. Gotta go. I’ve been procrastinating a deadline for a week now.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Juliette you’re so welcome! I hear you on the exercise thing. It’s okay though – managing anxiety is about having a bit of a toolbox so you can have a few different things to draw on. Hopefully these will give you a few ideas for different things to try. I hope you’re able to find some comfort amongst them. (And good luck with the deadline!)

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Sophie

Hi Juliette! I would love to see if I could help you with your difficulty exercising. I am a health coach and we provide solutions that are only 30 minutes of movement/day. Please send me an email if you’re interested to connect.

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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