originally written for and published on Harkla.co
Anxiety. We’ve all experienced it in waves or perhaps it’s a regular occurrence that you manage daily.
Anxiety is the stress, worry, or fear that we feel during a difficult life event, period of transition, or period of uncertainty. What differentiates these typical periods of stress with a diagnosable anxiety disorder is the severity to which it affects your daily functioning and the duration of these feelings.
What are Anxiety Disorders?
Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, panic disorder, separation anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and phobias (Anxiety and Depression Association of America).
Anxiety can result from genetic predispositions or comorbid (coexisting) psychiatric diagnoses like ADHD or autism among others. It may be the result of trauma or a significant life event, and can occur in people who have sensory processing dysfunction.
Anxiety Disorders in Children
It’s normal to experience phases of anxiety throughout childhood. Think of the ‘monster under the bed’ or the anxiety associated with separating a toddler from a parent. These are normal occurrences as children explore and learn about the world they live in.
However, when the anxiety persists and begins to limit one’s functioning, it can become more serious. Stress, nerves, fear, or excessive shyness can prevent children from interacting with the world around them. At this age, a child’s ability to “function” is identified through social-emotional contexts like peer interactions, daily routines and transitions, and early cognitive processes like school performance. Their “job” is to play and learn, and when the level of anxiety is severe, both home and school contexts can be seen to affected.
In their 2015 Children’s Mental Health Report, the Child-Mind Institute reported that 17.1 million children under the age of 18 (of a 74.5 million population) have or have had a diagnosable psychiatric disorder. That’s roughly 1 in 4.3 children! Of these diagnoses, the Child Mind Institute estimated that 40.2% are anxiety disorders, with 8.3% rising to the level of severe impairment. The median age of onset for an anxiety disorder is 6 years old. These statistics are significant, making anxiety “the most common emotional problem in children” (Child Mind Institute).
Anxiety in Teens and Adults
With staggering statistics that outline the prevalence of anxiety disorders in young children and adolescents, it is no surprise that 18.1% of the adult population (18 years+) are affected by anxiety disorders as well (Anxiety and Depression Association of America).
These teens and adults are expected to assume more responsibility at home, school, and at work. Higher level social-emotional skills, self-management skills, and cognitive tasks are expected, so anxiety can impact a person’s ability to function in all of these areas.
For questions about the diagnosis of potential anxiety disorders, it is best to consult with your physician or psychologist. We’ve linked you to two sources to get your search started:
Effective Approaches to Treating Anxiety
Common treatment for anxiety disorders in children can include cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressant medication, or a combination of both. This article’s purpose is not to advise or instruct on those medically-supervised approaches, but to inform you as to supplemental strategies that can relieve symptoms associated with anxiety such as fidgeting, self-injurious behavior, sensory sensitivities, and difficulties with self-regulation. The strategies discussed below are not intended to replace professional help.
Many of the strategies listed support the idea of developing Rapid Stress Management Techniques (RSMT) that work for you or your child. When looking closer at the “why” behind some of these strategies, we’ve identified the sensory system that is targeted to help you better understand how these activities/strategies support central nervous system regulation. For more information on sensory processing specifics, read on here.
When choosing anxiety management strategies, be careful to keep in mind your child’s developmental and cognitive level so you select something that is likely to be used independently or with only some prompting. The goal is to develop a “regulation toolbox” of strategies he/she can employ at times of anxiety, so they should be fairly independent. For teens and adults, be cognizant of the need for socially acceptable, discreet regulation solutions as this may impact how willing the person is to consistently try a strategy. What works at home might not be appropriate for the workplace!
Tactile manipulatives - Hand toys aka fidgets
If you read our article on Fidget Toys for Anxiety and ADHD, you learned about how repetitive motor movements with manipulatives, or fidgets, helped to occupy the brain just enough to impact self-regulation. Every body, brain, and personality are different but fidgets, when chosen for targeted features, can redirect potentially harmful repetitive behaviors like skin picking, hair twirling, and/or deep pressure seeking. Below are a few examples of fidgets that offer a variety of textures, movements, and stimulation. For additional fidget examples and DIY ideas, check out more Fidget to Focus ideas here.
Calming auditory input - music, chants, drumming, meditation
It could be something as basic as a rain stick, white noise machine, or soft music playing in the background, but certain types of auditory input can be calming. Chanting, drumming, or predictable rhythmic music can promote regulation and de escalation.
Olfactory input - essential oils, aromatherapy