Tips and Tricks for Anxiety

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I’ve been putting this post off for a while now. Part of me feels like it needs to be some kind of epic research paper or a giant collection of data and anecdotes but really, it’s not. I could do so much more research. I could tell so many more stories. I wish I had a buddy who was a psychologist chime in but I don’t. I don’t even have a collection of helpful links though I will try and add them in later as I do find them.

This is more of a collection of things that have worked for us over the last few years. And just as often as these things have worked, they have also not worked so don’t get your hopes up that I have any magical answers. There really aren’t any.

I think if I’ve learned anything over the course of this journey with my kid’s anxiety,  it’s that I’ve learned that I can’t do it for her. I can’t make this easier. I can try and I can provide comfort and remind her of tips and tricks but at the end of the day, SHE has to find her own way and that’s really hard for me. I want my child to grow up and be a successful adult and the only way I can help her do that is to stop protecting her from the scary things in the world. She has to fight her own battles, she has to find her own solutions, she has to find her own comfort… no matter how badly I want to do it all for her.

If you are dealing with a child with anxiety and you are struggling, my heart goes out to you.  You are not alone. You are not a freak. Your kid is not a freak.  A lot of this is normal. Sometimes it’s not normal and you need a professional but most of the time it is just a normal developmental step for a kid who is extra aware of their environment or extra intelligent or just extra sensitive.  Sometimes even the professionals can’t help. But don’t give up. You love your child and they will get through this and they will be stronger. You will get through this AND THEN it will start all over again. But you’ll get through that too.

Bug has experienced separation anxiety for as long as I can remember. A lot of this is due my parenting. I have separation anxiety from her and I am the most helicoptering of all helicopter parents. If I could put her in a bubble and freeze her as a three-year-old for the rest of her life, I probably would.  Actually, I wish I could save a version of her at every age because she is so dang cute but that’s just not practical. I mean, if we’re going to spend the day in daydream-land  I might as well order up a small army of personal nannies, a live-in chef and a giant bouncy house made out of jello.

But whatever. We’ve been dealing with this since she was two and I thought I’d hire a babysitter to come watch her while I worked in the other room. That ended after two weeks because I couldn’t handle leaving her and she didn’t stop crying. Preschool was hit and miss. Kindergarden was HORRIBLE. First grade was remarkably smooth but I’m accounting that to the fact that she had an amazing teacher that gave her lots of one-on-one attention. Second grade was horrible… well you get the picture.

A pivotal point for me was when I finally took Bug to her pediatrician to get a note for her school. Everyday in second grade Bug would get the dry heaves on the way. She’d start with a tummy ache before we even left the house and she’d work herself up until she was actually vomiting by the time she got to the door of her classroom. Of course at first I kept her home. How could I not? But then she started missing too many days at school and it got really old that she’d be magically better as soon as we got home.

I forced her to go to school but her school would send her home because of their no-vomit policy. In fact, Bug started using her ability to make herself sick to get out of anything she didn’t want to do.  This was not going to end well. I really really didn’t want her to use vomiting as a solution to stress.

So I took Bug to the doctor and her doctor was so kind. She’d seen this before with many many other kids.  The doctor talked about it with Bug and then she looked me in the eyes and told me that anxiety was something Bug would cycle in and out of all of her life. In fact, at the time of her appointment Bug was actually getting better. I think it clicked for me. I could handle this.  There would be good times and bad times. There is no magical cure. We just have to get through the hard times. I can’t fix her. She isn’t necessarily broken. She’s just wired differently.

So the point of this post is to collect all the things we’ve done that have helped us through the hard times.

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BOOKS

What To Do When You Worry Too Much

I found this workbook during a frantic search on Amazon during some of Bug’s most difficult kindergarden days. She loved this book. She loved the analogy that her worries were like a tomato plant. We had a huge garden of tomatoes that year and it just worked for her active imagination.  Plus she’s super into art and pages for coloring pictures were fun and helpful. It was art therapy for her and a great communication tool for us. I could really understand what was going on in her head when I saw her draw it out.

It was also really helpful because the books had us set up a time for worrying. A designated half hour at seven in the morning and a half hour at seven in the evening were set aside for talking about her worries. Not before, not after. This was great because if she had her way, she’d talk about her worries all the live long day and at that point I was going crazy trying to comfort and reason with something that could not be comforted or reasoned with. The more we talked about it, the bigger and more out of control it got. There was no snapping out of it.  It just didn’t work.

But setting up a time for worrying kept it more manageable. It also gave Bug something to look forward to and she taught herself how to manage her worries while she waited for the designated time. This was a HUGE step. She can control it. But it takes practice. Some days are better than others but success breeds success. And she was proud of herself when she could get through a day without freaking out publicly.

I also bought What To Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck but Bug doesn’t really struggle with OCD quite as much. She does have quirky OCD-like tendencies but it’s not nearly as bad as her anxiety. And then I bought Freeing Your Child from Anxiety but honestly, I haven’t made it past the first chapter.  I’ve heard it’s really good though.

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 Therapy

We did try out a therapist for six sessions. Six very expensive sessions that I didn’t realize my insurance didn’t cover until it was too late.  This is entirely my fault because I never read those big fat booklets of insurance benefits that they send me in the mail. I thought it was like a phonebook to use for kids who need a booster seat at Thanksgiving. I didn’t realize that I had a 6K (!) deductible. My bad.

The therapist didn’t really impress me. It was sort of like paying someone to be nicey-nice to my kid for a hundred bucks an hour. But she did have some really good ideas. These are not ideas that I couldn’t have come up with on my own though. And if I’d known I was going to be paying so dearly for her ideas, I would have tried a little harder to think them up on my own.

So let me share these ideas with you and save you six hundred dollars. Though you probably didn’t sign up for the cheap crappy insurance and your kid’s therapist would probably be a lot more reasonable.

First she had Bug make a Buttefly Jar. This could be any kind of receptacle really. I’m sure you could use a mason jar and fill it with colored circles and call it a Bubblegum jar or cut out fish shapes and call it your fish jar… it doesn’t really matter. It’s just something nice that is decorated (because kids love decorating) and inside you put little pieces of papers that you write down coping mechanisms. You basically ask the kid what they can do to make themselves feel better when they are having an anxiety attack. You can see from the picture that Bug labeled some “breath,” “smile” “think” (about a pleasant memory, like going to Catalina Island etc etc…), “ask for help,” “use your imagination” etc etc.. And then when they are having an attack they can take the jar down from a shelf and sit with a butterfly and try to do that thing. Or you can even take the jar to school and keep it in your desk.

Bug never took it to school but I have caught her fingering her butterflies while she hides out in her bunk bed sometimes. So it works. It’s something quiet that they can go to on their own for reinforcement.

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The therapist also had Bug make a “Feel Better Bag” or “Feel Beter Bag” if you’re seven and still not spelling everything correctly.  Inside Bug put things that made her feel better. A squeeze ball, a postcard from Catalina, a small stuffed animal, a note from her dad… just things that made her feel happy.

And while I’m sharing this picture, I’d also like to say that stuffed animals ARE HUGE in Bug’s comfort arsenal. She loves her stuffed animals. In fact, I could easily buy her a whole entire store full of stuffed animals and she’d still ask for more.

I remember when Bug was really little, I wondered why she didn’t have a “lovey” as most of my friend’s kids did. I think when she was that young she just used me as her comfort but as she got older and had to go to school and sleep by herself… she’s now turned to stuffed animals to shower with love. And apparently they give her love back because she clings to them. They have elaborate costumes and personalities and even at eight, I hear her talking to them when she thinks I’m not listening.

Journaling is also very helpful. I personally use journaling as a way to deal with my anxiety and Bug sees me doing this. I’m afraid for the day when she reads my journals because she’ll see that I’m actually not the happy strong mother I pretend to be. My journals are FILLED to the brim with negative thoughts. But that’s how I deal. If I can put the thoughts down on paper they cease to rattle around endlessly in my hamster wheel brain. They have a beginning and an end and most of the time they are no longer than a paragraph–which is so much more manageable.

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Essential oils are an interesting tool that I never really believed in until Bug started using them. Our friend Leah Peah set us up with a small kit.  Leah lovingly explained each bottle to Bug and what it was for. She has a vanilla spray that she sprays on her pillow before she goes to bed. She has two roll-on oils that she puts on her wrists before school and one super-duper powerful peppermint dropper that she hides in her backpack for emergencies. Bug loves them. She uses them on good days and bad. I think just having something that is pleasant to smell can interrupt your normal thought cycle and help you break out of a bad thought pattern.

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Prayer is huge in our house. We have all kinds of methods. I like to pray for ten things, counting off one finger at a time. Bug likes to clasp her hands together and pray anywhere and anytime. We’ve both found prayer beads to be really helpful.

I was raised to take everything to God when I was a child and I’ve taught Bug the same thing. We’re not the faithful get-on-your-knees-and-pray-every-night-before-bed types (though I wish we were) but in times of need, we know that we can always pray.  Sometimes, that’s all you can do. I think anyone of any faith can pray.  Prayer is a powerful mind trick. You can either worry about things or you can pray. Like my friend Susan likes to say, Worry is a prayer for something bad to happen. So stop worrying and pray instead. If you don’t believe in God, stop worrying and say a positive mantra over and over. It’s amazing what can happen when your brain takes a vacation from thinking bad things are going to happen. Sometimes bad things stop happening!

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And last but not least: changing your environment.  If you can’t mentally take yourself out of your anxiety attack then physically take yourself out of it.  For kids this can mean doing jumping jacks, running around a tree, having a tickle fight or simply being picked up and held upside down. It seems really silly when you do it but this can stop a panic attack. I’ve done it with Bug even at eight years old. She’s getting a little heavy for me but it works.

So tell me, what do you do for anxiety? Do your kids have anxiety and what are your tricks?

 

EDITED TO ADD:

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I forgot to add earlier that a reward system can work sometimes too. If anything, this helped me to understand how bad Bug’s anxiety was from day to day. I offered her grand rewards like a trip to Legoland if she managed to go a whole month without going to the nurse’s office at school with a tummy ache. She never could agree to that one but a frozen yogurt after school sometimes got her through days that might normally have gone south. I like to think that maybe it helped her to get through the afternoons, knowing that if she held it together for just another hour or so she’d have something yummy (and not too terribly unhealthy) to look forward to at the end of the day. It also gave us some bonding time to sit and talk about the day. And since I shared these moments on Instagram, it was a fun way for friends and family to cheer her on as they saw the happy frozen yogurt treats pop up on my feed.

20 Comments Tips and Tricks for Anxiety

  1. Kami

    I am so happy to read this post. I read always but never comment (sorry!). My 10 yo son has developed bed time anxiety during the last 6 months and I was this close to finding a therapist but we seem to have found ways to help him manage it.

    We have had the same experience in terms of letting it get out of control by constantly talking about it. All that did was make the anxiety breed like rabbits.

    When I turned it around and tried to show him he has some control over it, it got a lot better. Before he goes to bed, we now have to both list two things about the day that made us happy, were fun, etc. This helps him focus on the positives and not those random shocking thoughts we all have.

    It ebbs and flows like anything and it was so great to read this and know that I am doing okay. Thank you so much for sharing it.

    Reply
  2. BeachMama

    Thank you for sharing SAJ! I know it is a hard thing to do sometimes but the truth is you may help another Mom or Child with their anxiety and that would be a good thing. We don’t really have it hear (in the kiddos, I think I have it but I have also learned to deal) but we do have one super positive child who thinks that every day is the best day ever and we have one super negative child that finds the negative in everything. There is balance in there somewhere so we just need to find it :D. Much love from us xo

    Reply
  3. Brian

    Brenda-

    Than you for sharing this. I have the most beautiful 3.5 year old little daughter and I can see some of these anxieties happening with her. This gave me a lot of ideas that I can try. Thanks for being so open.

    Reply
  4. Karen

    This is a fantastic post and resource. Bug is so lucky because you believe her anxiety is real, you are helping her cope, and you understand the cyclical nature of this problem.

    For going on 25 years I’ve struggled with anxiety. Sometimes it is debilitating enough that I can’t leave the house. Sometimes I need meds. Sometimes life is pretty good. Most of the time I am in therapy.

    About the therapy….finding the right match is key. But so is time. Many places have a sliding scale. Therapy might not be the right option for her, but it also might. The thing is you probably won’t know until you’ve invested at least 6 months into the process. Which totally sucks. But when it is working it can be amazingly helpful.

    On that note, I’m off to therapy….

    Good luck to you and your daughter.

    Reply
  5. Jen

    As you know, this has been something in my life for many years. I suffered in the past, my kids suffer now. These are great tips. Always here for you. It’s tough!

    Reply
  6. Christine

    I love this post. I don’t have kids who struggle with anxiety, but I’m sharing it elsewhere because it has so many great tips in it.

    Here’s to Bug coming to grips with her worries. You’re a great team.

    Reply
  7. Leahpeah

    Her face in that first photo is …bam-pow. My heart is with you guys. I’m glad you’ve found so many ways to cope and they can all be helpful at different times. It’s great to have an arsenal of tools. Empowering. <3

    Reply
  8. chris

    My heart really goes out to both of you. I am glad to see you are both moving forward. I hope you continue to do so.

    When I was 8, my world was turned inside out, upside down, and back again (my parents split, a cross country move, and then through a series of events we ended up living together but not for the reasons I had hoped). My anxiety was so bad, my hair fell out. I had a bald spot.

    Unlike, Bug, school was the one thing I would leave the house willingly to attend – everything else – forget it. Things were so bad and crazy that at one point my mother tricked me outside and then locked the door behind me, refusing to let me in. It was awful, but I could see even then why she did it.

    I highly recommend “When Panic Attacks” by Dr. David Burns, M.D. In the book he talks a lot of reframing your fears by actually looking at what you are afraid of, and then turning it around on itself. Since almost all fears are irrational, it is a fairly easy thing to do, and all it takes is some paper and a pen.

    Reply
  9. Ruth

    Thank you so much for posting your emotional journey. My middle child is only three and I can already see signs of anxiety. I will be utilizing you suggestions and rereading this post again and again.

    Reply
  10. Hil

    There is a member of my family that struggled so terribly from anxiety, and no one ever did anything but yell at him about it. I am so happy that you are sensitive to her suffering.
    My oldest daughter has some anxiety, and I tried really hard to teach her about courage and being capable, saying,”Oh, wow! You are so capable at making new friends on the playground! Oh, wow! You have so much courage to go to a party where you don’t know any one!’
    I do think her anxiety came from me, because I wasn’t always the most capable, together, organized parent. I think it was reasonable of her to sometimes worry if I really was going to hold it together, but now (age 14) she goes places and does things independently with few worries.
    Thank you so much for writing this!

    Reply
  11. Katy

    Thank you for posting these ideas. My 12 year old daughter suffers from anticipatory anxiety. When I look back I can see that it started around 3, but it really hit a peak around 11 (5th grade).

    We found a therapist that was really great at explaining to her how her body responds differently to stress than other people. I think the most important thing she taught her is that there is no way around anxiety, you have to go straight through it. If she is anxious about going to school, waiting another day to go will only make the anxiety worse. The best way to get past the anxiety is for her to push through and do the thing she is anxious about. The therapist also told her that anxiety can be one of the most difficult things to experience, but it is also one of the most treatable. I think that gave her some confidence that she could learn to cope with her anxiety.

    After much discussion with her therapist and her doctor, we also decided that she needed medication. Certainly she is older than Bug, and I wouldn’t have medicated her at 8, but it has helped tremendously. Medication is not for everyone, and not everyone needs it, but it can also be a great help to some people.

    I think that the more we talk about anxiety (and depression) the more people realize it is not something to be embarrassed about. That if you need help it is OK to get it. I know I can’t always be there to help her with her anxiety, so I hope I can teach her to recognize when it is escalating and to know how and where to seek help… and to never be embarrassed to get it.

    Reply
  12. Wendy

    Thank you for sharing your story. This is so thoughtfully written – I just had to share. Having a child who had heart wrenching separation anxiety, this touched me in a special way.

    Reply
  13. s

    We struggle with this with one of my kids although it has improved beyond belief. I look back at some of the worst periods and wish I could have not made it such a big deal. I think the best mantra is this too shall pass. I tell my son all the time to not allow his anxiety to limit him…he can do it, he can break those barriers and we are right here to support. So hard and my heart goes out to anyone dealing with anxiety…it’s a tough beast!

    Reply
  14. Bennance

    Thank you! You may not realize this, but you are a hero to many. As a lurker here, I just want to jump out of my hidden space and let you know what a great job you are doing, both as a mom and as an advocate for anxiety, whether it’s kids or parents. Great job! Thank you.

    Reply
  15. Emilie Ahern

    I stumbled here so accidentally to get valentines prinatables and then clicked the home button to find this post. My oldest daughter (almost 10) has an Anxiety Disorder and has shown signs since age 3. I was totally unprepared. We too found “What to Do When You Worry Too Much” to be a big help. I shared some of my thoughts on the topic on my blog here.

    http://www.em-il-ie.com/2012/11/the-post-where-i-talk-about-my-child.html

    Thanks for sharing!!

    Reply
  16. Katherine

    Every time I read one of your anxiety posts I want to come and give you both a hug because I was an anxious child and it stayed with me a long time. In the 80s and 90s we didn’t talk about mental health and were so much less aware, I just thought I was really strange for feeling that way, didn’t realise other people did too and my mum just muddled through the best she could. I think it sounds like you’re doing a great job, acknowledging it and talking about it and creating coping strategies.

    I love that Bug has a butterfly jar and a feel better bag because I have those things too, I just never gave them a name! I have a pencil case full of nice little things to make me feel better and in it a folder of coping strategies (I took them from the Anxiety and Phobia workbook which is a great resource). I’m 36 and I’m not sure I can remember the last time I used them, so things do get better.

    Reply
  17. bethany actually

    Oh man, I read this post with tears in my eyes. You know I love you guys and I knew a lot of this but I feel like I didn’t really even know the half of it. Give Bug a hug from me, just because, and tell her that we miss her a lot and love her, will you?

    Annalie has never really had anxiety like Bug, though she’s had her moments–not wanting to go back into her first gymnastics class, not wanting to pay for things at the store by herself–and I used to tell her a lot: whenever you’re scared to do something, and you do it anyway, it makes you braver and stronger. So every time you do something you’re scared to do, you’re actually making it easier to do it next time. That might not be applicable to anxiety, exactly, but then again it might. :-)

    Also, I think if Bug ever reads your journals she’s going to realize just how strong you actually are, because you were dealing with anxiety and worry and negativity and still being a kickass mom all the time.

    Reply

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