Dr Emma Woodward has over 20 years’ experience working with young people, schools and in the community as a child and educational psychologist.
She is the Clinical Director of NZIWR, a mother to 3 energetic boys and is currently completing a Diploma in Positive Psychology and Wellbeing.
Historically, anxiety served the evolutionary purpose of keeping us alive. Like an alarm system, anxiety is part of our survival response. Clinical anxiety occurs when the alarm system becomes too sensitive and is triggered too often. If this response stops us from doing the things we would normally do in our everyday lives, anxiety is a problem.
While the symptoms of clinical anxiety present differently in everyone, the neural mechanism is the same. An anxiety response happens when the amygdala (the emotional brain) takes over the pre-frontal cortex (the thinking brain) due to a perceived threat. Humans go into ‘fight, flight or freeze’ in order to avoid the perceived threat. Effective strategies to help manage anxiety can be taught and learned.
Strategies to manage anxiety can be either proactive or reactive. Proactive strategies are ways to stay in the thinking brain. Reactive strategies can be employed when we notice the emotional brain is beginning to take over. Strategies are best learnt when we are calm. ‘Practice when it’s easy, so it’s easy when it’s hard’ is a helpful mantra for young people. The strategies for anxiety need to be practiced consistently in order to be accessed easily in times of difficulty.
Proactive strategies are good for our wellbeing generally. Sleep, food and exercise are the basic physical needs for good functioning. Psychological strategies include positive self-talk, mindfulness and knowledge of our character strengths to build resilience. Teaching young people about the brain including diagrams of how the thinking brain and the emotional brain interact can also be helpful.
Reactive strategies include breathing techniques which are an effective tool at any age. Box Breathing is one option which employs the thinking brain and regulates the emotional and physical response. To support a person who is in an anxious state, we need to become their thinking brain. To do this, we need to stay calm ourselves in order to provide comfort and reassurance. Once the person has returned to a calm state, we can discuss strategies to employ next time.
Check out the website for the Child Psychology Service founded by Emma: http://www.thechildpsychologyservice.co.nz/
Grab a copy of one of the Daniel Segal books Emma discussed – the Whole Brain Child and No Drama Discipline: https://www.amazon.com/Daniel-J.-Siegel/e/B00459LSPI/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1
Watch Dr Emma Woodward speak about anxiety in children on The Project.