When Feelings Get Too Big

The body and the brain are so interconnected. When children or adults get overwhelmed by feelings, be it anxiety, fear, frustration, anger etc. this is registered not only in the brain but also in the body. Their heart rate will increase, their hands may get sweaty, their fists or jaws may clench and their breathing will become shallow. They can use the body to calm the brain, self-regulation can be achieved and they can feel a sense of control once again. Here are strategies for achieving this.

The 4 B’s

  1. Put the Brakes On: It is important to learn ways to put the brakes on to stop these feelings from getting bigger. Putting the brakes on helps release muscle tension and decreases the excess energy produced by the feelings. Here’s how to put the brakes on. Have your child sit and press the palms of his/her hands together for 5-10 seconds. This should be repeated several times. What it does is engage the muscles of the outer arms and the shoulders which are muscles involved in containment.
  2. Breathing: Breathing helps regain a sense of body awareness and helps restore a sense of calm. It also helps to ground the body. Teach you child to breathe into the belly/abdomen. Have your child put one hand on his/her abdomen and one hand on his/her chest. Instruct your child that s/he will want to feel the belly rise and not the chest. Have your child imagine that there is a balloon in his/her belly and that with each inhale, the balloon fills and the abdomen expands. Then exhale through the mouth as if s/he was blowing into a straw. Once your child has learned abdominal breathing, have him/her calm down with “Take 5 Breathing”.                                                                            1. Have your child stretch out his/her hand like a star. 2. Child uses his/her pointer finger to trace up and down around the fingers. 3.The pointer finger slides up each finger slowly and down the other side.  4. The child breathes in through the nose and out through the mouth. 5. Put it all together – breath in sliding up and breathing out sliding down. Keep going until your child has finished tracing his/her hand. (See image here.)
  3. Activate the Brain: Have you child place his/her hands on the top of his/her hands and apply a light pressure. This calms the body and activates the brain.
  4. Use the Body: Have your child cross his/her arms in front of his/her body and apply pressure as if to hug him/herself. This increases body awareness and sense of security, calm and focus. You can include a soft toy for the hug.

Once your child has learned these activities, s/he can use them anytime s/he needs to feel calm.



Neurofeedback and Anxiety

Neurofeedback has shown to be effective in reducing anxiety in children – not only in adults. It retrains the brain in a passive, non-invasive way and calms the nervous system. It teaches the brain to remain in an optimal zone. The American Pediatric Association recognizes neurofeedback as effective for children on the Autism Spectrum for the same reason that it is effective for dealing with anxiety; it keeps the brain working in an optimal zone. Neurofeedback training helps the brain create new neuropathways, bypassing those that no longer work.

Let me take you through an example. Sally, an eight year old was brought in to see me because she had a lot of trouble separating from her mother. She couldn’t go off to school without a lot of crying and clinging to mom nor could she be left at a friend’s birthday party and sleepovers at friend’s house; impossible. This behaviour is not typical of an eight year old and this anxiety was causing Sally distress and was interfering with many areas of her life.

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In he diagram above, the green wave shows brain activity that it is in the “optimal” zone. The waves lie within a certain range. The mauve wave has large fluctuations and shows the brain that is outside of the optimal range. In the case of Sally the mauve wave would indicate her “anxious” brain. What happens during neurofeedback, is that whenever Sally’s brainwaves go beyond the optimal level, the brain receives a signal (a slight interruption in the music that Sally is listening too) that tells the brain to return to the optimal range. This is creating a new neuropathway, letting the brain know that it needs to remain in the optimal zone. Each time that the brain is signaled to return to the optimal zone, the neuropathway is strengthened so that it learns to stay in this optimal zone on its own.

Imagine standing in a field of freshly fallen snow. The first time you make a path in snow, it is slow going and the path is just defined. You can see your footprints but the snow between each footprint is still in tact. Each time you pass over this same path, the snow gets more and more compact and the individual footprints eventually disappear. All that you see is a compact path through the snow. This is a similar to what happens in neurofeedback training.

During the neurofeedback sessions, each lasting 33 1/2 minutes, the child can read a book, or play a game on the computer while listening to music. The child can even watch a movie. The neurofeedback program does the rest. The child has 2 sensors attached to the head, which are used to read the signals on the surface of the brain. This information is processed through the neurofeedback system and the system sends signals back as it needs to. At no time are there any electrical impulses or any other signals going into the brain through the sensors. The only signal that the brain receives is in the interruption of the music or audio that the child is listening to.

I know that is sounds almost to good to be true but I have seen the results for myself. Neurofeedback works!

Reducing Your Child’s Anxiety

In my counselling practice, the most common issue that children come in with is anxiety. Families live very busy lives and children are kept busy too. Parents feel that if the children are kept busy, they will not have time to get into trouble. This may be the case with some children but what all the children do experience by being kept so busy is a lot of anxiety. Children are taxied from school to dance lessons, soccer practice, piano lessons, soccer games, art lessons, swimming lessons and a variety of other structured activities. Once the children get home, they have to eat and do their homework which then leaves little to no time for unstructured, non-electronic playtime. This playtime, be it alone or with a friend, is the time when children will unwind, relieve their stress, use their imaginations and creativity. They learn how to interact with others: cooperate, negotiate and share. It is a time for exploration and discovery and it is a very necessary part of growing up.

Often when children with anxiety issues come for counselling, they are wound up very tight and one thing that they all seem to have in common is that they do not know how to play, or at least they do not feel comfortable playing. When they come to a Play Therapist, they can expect play and it takes time before these children can abandon themselves to the play and thereby start the process of learning to handle their anxiety.

My prescription for reducing children’s anxiety is to reduce the number of structured activities that they participate in. My rule of thumb would be that children should participate in no more than 2 structured activities at a time. Diane Marshall, Director of Community Engagement Programs at Kaboom! states the following:

“Research about play highlights its role in supporting cognitive, social-emotional, and physical development. Play also strengthens creativity and academic achievement, and relieves the symptoms of attention deficit disorder, anxiety, depression, and potentially debilitating health conditions like obesity and diabetes, among other major benefits.”

What other activity do you know that does as much for children as play does?

A Is For Anger or Anxiety

Let’s talk a bit about the cycle of anger or anxiety because both react in much the same way.  The way I think about the reaction of these emotions is on an increasing scale of o to 10, with 10 being full blown anxiety or anger (rage).  Once it gets to this point there is no use in trying to have any conversation with your child, or anyone else for that matter.  They cannot process anything as they are operating at this point from a very primitive place in their brain (flight or fight).  Once a level 10 has been reached, it takes about 45 minutes for the whole system to calm down and get back down to a 0.

Look at the “A” below and notice that between 1 and 2 there is a “crossing” to get from one side of the “A” to the other.  If we can catch our anger/anxiety at this point, we can walk across this crossing or bridge to get to the other side and from here it is a short distance back to 0.  This is why it is important to recognize the signs in our bodies that tell us that we are getting mad or that our anxiety is rising.  We feel many of the same sensations in our bodies, clenching and tightening, butterflies in our stomachs, feeling hot or cold, energy in our legs (to flee or to fight).  With anxiety we may also feel a shortness of breath, our hearts racing, a tightness in our chests and/or sweaty palms.

If we can recognize these signs within our bodies, then we can take action before our level reaches 2.  There are a few suggestions listed on the “A” which allow us to then walk across the bridge and stop the anger/anxiety from reaching a 10 and then having a long, long way back.  Also to note is that it is a very quick climb to 10 once we’ve hit the 2.

So, teach your children how to notice the signs in their bodies and what to do when they start so that they can take control of these emotions and keep them at a level where they are still useful energy.

See the article Angrrrrr! for more information about anger.