Last night for the Parenting Kids with Anxiety group we discussed the way anxiety can affect our kids’ bodies.
Somatic symptoms are often mistaken for something else, which can get in the way of getting appropriate help.
The most common somatic symptoms of child anxiety are these:
- Restlessness (inability to sit still, fidgeting with clothes or objects, chewing on fingernails, etc.)
- Stomach problems (butterflies, pain, nausea, a need to go to the bathroom)
- Heart palpitations (also panting, wheezing)
- Muscle tension (headaches, other aches & pains)
Behavior problems are common in anxious kids for several reasons including the somatic symptoms. Kids who are too tense and fidgety to sit still may be reprimanded in school, which may increase their anxiety. Anxiety is sometimes misdiagnosed as ADD/ADHD because it can make it so hard for kids to focus. However children with ADD/ADHD can also have anxiety and it may be missed because observers assume it’s part of the child’s attention problems.
Kids who are anxious may act irritable, mouthy, weepy and generally difficult. Part of this has to do with the somatic response; most of us act yucky when we feel yucky.
The physical symptoms of anxiety are real — they’re part of the Fight/Flight/Freeze fear reaction. In other words kids aren’t making them up or making themselves sick to get out of the things that make them anxious.
When we are afraid, our bodies go into protective mode. Our muscles get tight so that we’re ready to react. Our adrenaline kicks up, which makes us get sweaty and makes our heart and breathing come faster. The cascade of chemical reactions in our bodies can also wreak havoc on our tummies. This physical response not only prepares us to stay safe, it also tells us that we need to be afraid. In other words, anxiety happens on a self-perpetuating loop.
Imagine a 9-year old who wakes up worried about a report she has to give later that day in front of her class. As she’s getting dressed, thinking about the report, her stomach starts to hurt. She heads down to the kitchen only to find that she can’t eat breakfast. She starts to worry about throwing up in front of the whole class and this makes her stomach hurt even more. She can’t stop picturing how awful it will be to humiliate herself and she finds herself worrying even more about the report she spent all last evening getting just right. Her thoughts are worried. Her emotions are worried. Her body is worried, too.
As parents we need to help our kids spot the loop and interrupt it. This takes practice and attention.
For somatic symptoms, parents can help their children identify their physical response to anxiety. In the kids’ groups we’ve taken outlines (like Gingerbread Men) and drawn in where we feel our worries. Kids are often surprised and relieved to find out that symptoms like sweaty hands or shakiness are common. Knowing what’s happening can help children feel more in control of their anxiety response.
Interrupting the physical part of the anxiety loop means addressing the physical symptoms. Deep breathing, hugs, rocking, and taking a time-out can all help children get their bodies and minds calm. Taking a cool drink of water or splashing cold water on one’s face or wrists can help decrease sweaty symptoms or decrease blushing.
I also really like a set of muscle relaxation exercises created for children with autism who need to prepare for blood draws. They’re simple and easy to remember even for very young children. Some of them are unobtrusive enough that kids can do them under their desks at school or in the car before heading off to an event. You can find them in this PDF, Taking the Work Out of Blood Work, on pages 11 to 13.
The exercises take practice to get good at them and parents can do them with their kids before bed since that’s a great time to practice getting calm. That way when children do start to feel anxious, they’ll be prepared with familiar exercises they already know how to do.
If you’d like to come to the next group, just sign up for an email reminder at the Parenting Kids with Anxiety web page.