Calm the Anxiety Monster!

Every educator should have strategies for helping students cope with anxiety in their toolbox. Students with learning differences like ADHD and dyslexia often have a lot of anxiety around academics and school work — and for good reason!

The website GoZen has a terrific article with advice on how to help students deal with anxiety, 37 Techniques to Calm an Anxious Child. I’ve posted my favorite selections below.

Keep in mind, every student is different and some of the tools below will work better for different individuals. When you try a strategy, please test it at least two to three times before making a judgment on whether it suits your student.

Write it out and then throw it out. In a study published in Psychological Science, people were asked to write what they liked or disliked about their bodies. One group of people kept the paper and checked it for errors, whereas the other group of people physically discarded the paper their thoughts were written on. The physical act of discarding the paper helped them discard the thoughts mentally, too. Next time your child is anxious, have her write her thoughts on a paper and then physically throw the paper out.

Talk to your worry. Personification of a worry allows children to feel as though they have control over it. By giving anxiety a face and a name, the logical brain takes over and begins to place limitations on the stressor. For young children, you can create a worry doll or character for them that represents worry.

Give yourself a hug or hold your own hand. Physical touch releases oxytocin, a feel-good hormone, and reduces the stress hormone cortisol in the bloodstream. The next time your child feels anxious, have her stop and give herself a warm hug or clasp her own hand.

Learn about the physical symptoms of worry. We often think of anxiety as a mental state. What we don’t think about is how worry creates physical symptoms as well. Cortisol and adrenaline, two of the body’s main stress hormones, are produced at a rapid rate when we experience anxiety. These are the “fight or flight” hormones that prepare our bodies to either fight or run from something dangerous. Our heart rates increase, and our breathing gets fast and shallow; we sweat, and we may even experience nausea and diarrhea. However, once your child is familiar with the physical symptoms of anxiety, he can recognize them as anxiety and use any of the strategies in this article rather than worry that he is sick.

Stretch. A study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics showed that children who practice yoga not only experience the uplifting benefits of exercise but also maintain those benefits long after they are done with their practice. Even if you or your child is unfamiliar with yoga poses, the process of slow, methodical stretching can provide many of the same benefits.

Try progressive muscle relaxation. This relaxation exercise includes two simple steps: (1) Systematically tense specific muscle groups, such as your head, neck, and shoulders etc., and then (2) Release the tension and notice how you feel when you release each muscle group. Have your child practice by tensing the muscles in her face as tightly as she can and then releasing the tension. Here is a great script for kids (pdf).

Strike a power pose. Anxiety makes your child want to physically shrink. However, research has shown that holding a powerful pose for just two minutes can boost feelings of self-confidence and power. Have your child pose like her favorite superhero, with her hands on her hips, ready for battle, or strike a pose like a boss leaning over a table to drive a point home, hands planted on the table top.

Walk in nature. A Stanford study showed that exposure to green spaces has a positive cognitive effect on school children. Going for a walk in nature allows your child to reconnect with tangible, physical objects; calms his mind; and helps his logical brain to take over for his anxious brain.

Volunteer. Researchers have long shown that “helper’s high” happens when people volunteer to help others without any expectation of compensation. Whether your child is helping a younger sibling do math homework or helping your neighbor weed her flower bed, volunteering is an easy way to alleviate his feelings of stress or anxiety.

Know that this too shall pass. One of the greatest lies the anxious brain tells your child is that she will feel anxious forever. Physiologically, it is impossible to maintain a high level of arousal for longer than several minutes. Invite your child to sit by you, and read a story or simply watch the world go by until the feelings of anxiety start to fade away. It sounds simple, but acknowledging that the “fight or flight” response won’t last forever gives it less power when your child begins to feel its effects.

For more ideas, check out another GoZen article:  49 Phrases to Calm an Anxious Child. Let us know in the comments if you have any other anxiety strategies that work well for students!

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager