It’s puzzling and scary for Ryan’s parents. It seemed as if overnight their once happy, social 10 year old did not want to leave home to go to school, or go out and play with friends the way he used to. Ryan can’t explain it himself. “I just get nervous about it and then my stomach hurts, I get cramps, and feel like I have to go to the bathroom.” Now Ryan worries about getting a stomachache whenever he’s away from home.
Tiara who is 11 was always a shy, cautious child who had separation anxiety every year when school first started, but managed to eventually adjust. But this year, she’s having a tough time with math and the homework load often overwhelms her. Tiara worries almost all the time about school and that she may be called on to go to the board to do a math problem, or that she’ll never be able to understand the homework. Though she goes to school without complaint, Tiara suffers in silence.
Symptoms of Anxiety Pack a Wallop
Both Ryan and Tiara are developing chronic anxiety. And once a child experiences the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety, and it happens over and over again, it’s understandable why they don’t want to go out the door. First the physical symptoms of anxiety are powerful and disturbing:
- It starts with a heart-pounding adrenaline rush which includes other stress hormones.
- Breathing becomes rapid and shallow making it tough to catch your breath, often leading to feelings of being smothered or trapped.
- Dizziness, numbness and feeling faint are common symptoms.
- Muscles tense causing headaches, or chest pain and body aches.
- Voiding of bowel and bladder occurs, causing cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
- Sweating occurs as the body cools itself, a hot flush may occur too.
The mental symptoms pack a punch, too, playing havoc with cognitive functioning making it difficult to think clearly, reason and learn. Anxious children may complain about feeling frightened, helpless, and out of control. Some kids feel like they are having an out of body experience, others get angry or feel ashamed and isolated.
Symptoms vary from mild to severe, but even milder symptoms can be distressful. Avoiding places and situations often seems like the only option for an anxious child. Look at it from Ryan’s point of view. He says to his parents, “If I go to school or a friend’s house I may get a stomachache, but when I stay home I feel better.” Tiara feels better on Friday afternoons. . “On Friday after school I can take a break and not have to think about math or school at all.” But when Sunday afternoon comes around, Tiara begins to worry about Monday morning and her anxiety starts to build.
Worry is a Culprit
A main ingredient of anxiety is worry: thinking or obsessing about past experiences and worrying that they will happen again. When Tiara thinks about being in school she replays embarrassing moments in class when she couldn’t work out a math problem on the board, or failed a math test. Then she projects those memories into the future: “What if my teacher calls me to the board?” “What if we have a math quiz again?” Ryan worries too. “What if my stomach hurts and I feel like diarrhea in class and I can’t leave the room?” “What if it happens at a friend’s house?” And it’s worry that jump starts the fight or flight–one ounce of worry and the symptoms are raging.
What’s Happening to Me? It’s the Fight or Flight
A first crucial step in helping your tween is to explain why the symptoms are occurring. Symptoms occur because of something called the “fight or flight response” that is an alarm system located in the nervous system. It warns the body of physical danger and activates a reaction to avoid injury or death. In anxious children, this alarm goes off when a perception of danger is present, for example a math test. It’s only a false alarm though because the brain cannot distinguish between a real physical threat to life and limb, or to the fear of something benign.
The fight or flight has allowed humans to survive to this day. But its purpose is to act as a short-term response to a physical threat, not as a continuous state of mind and body leading to chronic anxiety. And when your child’s fight or flight revs up while she’s taking a test, or sitting in the classroom, there’s no outlet for this response, no relief, no running away, no battle to win. Your child has to sit there trying to deal with an internal hurricane.
The False Alarm Explanation
An easy way to explain the fight or flight is by using a home smoke detector. Show your child that you can set off the smoke detector either by frying something in the kitchen or by pushing the button on the detector. Say, “See, the detector thinks there is a fire and the alarm is going off, even though there is no fire. But the detector doesn’t know we’re fooling it. It gets the message that a fire is occurring and does its job. That’s what happens to your brain, it thinks the math test (or other fear) you’re worrying about is a real physical danger and the alarm goes off to protect you.”
When Ryan understood what the fight or flight was, and he began to make his way out to play with friends again, when he felt anxiety begin he learned to say to himself, “I don’t like the way I feel but it’s nothing more than an adrenaline rush.” This helped him to take control of his fears of the symptoms. Hearing the false alarm explanation helped Tiara too. When she felt anxious she pictured little firemen (or firegirls) running around inside of her, seeing no fire, and turning off the alarm.
In the end, for many children it’s the fear of the symptoms that turns anxiety into a chronic condition and makes kids want to feel better and safe by staying home. Also tell your child, “I know that what you feel is disturbing and can be frightening, but these are just feelings and they can’t hurt you.”