Growing up, it was inevitable that just before something fun or scary, I would become horribly ill. Every Thanksgiving, Christmas, big family outing, vacation, test, and party was always the same–I was sick. My parents took me to the doctor time and again, but the physicians were never able to say what was happening with me or why my stomach hurt so often.
It turns out that it was anxiety.
How is that even possible? Isn’t anxiety something in your head? Well, yes and no. Anxiety for me was worry about the future event and the significance my brain was attributing to that particular event. Feeling like a situation is out of your control can often lead to feelings of anxiety, which is what happened with me. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but I would ruminate over the unknowns, “Will they like me? Will I pass? Will I embarrass myself?” The unknown and uncontrollable often made me feel worried and anxious.
In her documentary film Angst, executive producer Scilla Andreen brings children, teens, and professionals together to identify and explore the symptoms of anxiety and offer tools, hope, and encouragement for people to seek help.
Andreen interviews Dr. Laura Kastner to describe how anxiety can manifest itself physically in the form of stomach aches and body aches.
Dr. Kastner brilliantly describes the chain reaction that occurs internally when we worry too much. She says, “If you create a chronic stressful condition–worrying–that raises your cortisol level which is our internal steroid, which raises the amount of hydrochloric acid in our stomach–which is not okay–and your stomach hurts, your heart starts going faster, your eyes dilate, your mouth gets dry, your hands get cold, your muscles get tight, and if your muscles are tight for a long time, then you start hurting–your back starts hurting, your shoulders start hurting, your neck starts hurting. If you furrow your brow for too long, then your head starts hurting.”
When you hear Dr. Kastner break down the physiological elements of what occurs when someone feels anxious, it makes so much sense that our bodies would hurt right alongside our minds.
What can you do to help someone get through the anxiety? Here are a few of the recommendations from the film that I found particularly helpful.
#1 Stress Breathes
Breathing turns your brain back on when you are feeling stressed. The breathing example provided in the film was called Stress Breathing. To do this type of breathing, you’d first breathe through the nose while the head is lifted, then place your chin down to your chest and hold your breath for a few seconds. Finally, raise your head and gently release your breath out through the nose.
Snap back and forth with both hands alternating from one to the other and then pause. Snapping is one of my favorite methods for regaining focus while I’m out in public. Shopping during a pandemic has been a bit stressful, but snapping back and forth while shopping gives me a feeling of control over an otherwise uncontrollable situation. Similar to a fidget cube, it gives me something to do with my anxiety.
Gentle exposure to the upsetting stimuli can help provide a sense of control. This one is a bit tricky, but allowing the anxious person to gauge their anxiety on a 1-10 scale pre-activity, during the activity, and post-activity is a way to help the individual feel control over the upsetting stimuli. In the video, a young boy had a lot of anxiety about talking to strangers. His mother devised a plan in which the boy would try on an outfit and ask a sales clerk what they thought. Throughout the video, she checked in on him and asked him to scale his anxiety. With each step, the boy proved to himself that he can do hard things.
#4 Special Place
Think of a place where you feel special and loved. I remember when I moved away to college and was feeling particularly nervous. I would set aside time to indulge in the feeling of being at home and feeling the love of my family. The more detailed I got with my imagination, the better I felt. The beach, a favorite library, or any place that creates that safe and loving feeling will help someone in distress regain their composure.
Put a piece of ice in each hand and only focus on the coldness of the ice. It is pretty difficult to think of anything else during this activity and brings you back to the present moment. I have also found that Sour Heads work great for refocusing and brining a person into the moment.
Look at your hand and take it in and out of focus with your eyes. Being in the moment is the best way to get out of your head.
I don’t recall precisely how I started journaling, but I do know that it has been my saving grace over the years. Being able to vent freely and without judgment made me feel as though I didn’t have to hang on to my nervous feelings. Writing was like purging all the bad stuff out of my body. Journaling allowed me to close the loop on my worry–if it was on the page, I didn’t have to carry it with me.
Anxiety is real, and for some people, including children, it can be absolutely debilitating. Providing tools to manage anxiety is important, but nothing beats having someone safe to talk to who will listen and validate your fears without judgment.
If you’re looking for more resources to help tackle anxiety, Angst has developed a website with a myriad of resources in the form of books, videos, apps, websites, therapist contacts, and articles.
Discussing my anxiety with my mother as an adult was revelatory, she told me that she had always assumed I was just a shy kid, she hadn’t realized I had anxiety. Looking back, I feel bad for my parents because they tried to help me feel better, but back then it only made sense that if you’re feeling ill physically, it must be a physical cause and remedy. Now we know what psychological conditions can manifest through physical symptoms and what we can do to help.
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