Changing the story of anxiety in kids

Why are so many kids anxious?

I went bushwalking with two of my oldest friends the other day. Thrown in the mix of giggles and chats about life was the question – why are so many kids anxious? Everyone had a slightly different take on the reasons. I stumbled through my response and shared that our focus at Grow Your Mind was on prevention and building skills in resilience and less on the ‘why’ and ‘cause’ of mental health problems. I also shared that we would be recording a podcast episode on anxiety that would hopefully help kids and parents feel more supported.

And now that podcast episode has landed, it is called Threat, Challenge or Opportunity? And it is full of super helpful strategies to support a child when they are struck with anxiety.

 But in the process of researching and writing the episode I was reminded of two critical things:

  1. We need to change the story of anxiety
  2. There is a question we can ask that will help change that narrative

The story needs changing

We were incredibly lucky to have Karen Young be interviewed on the podcast episode. Young began her career as a psychologist and now consults with schools, parent groups, and organisations both at home in Australia and internationally to support the mental wellbeing of young people, in particular she offers fantastic insight into how to manage anxiety creatively. What we all loved, kids included, from Young’s interview was the fact that she reclaims the term anxiety so passionately. Young states that everyone feels anxious and that anxiety is not the absence of courage, but rather it’s a sign post telling you that you are about to be brave. 

Students preparing their questions for the interview with Karen Young

Anxiety is not a problem with your brain, rather it is your brain being fabulous! And this is the story that really needs to change. The amygdala senses that something is either, in Young’s words: scary-safe or scary-dangerous. And just as the smoke alarm goes off when we burn the toast as well as when there is real fire, sometimes we need to be reminded that we will feel the same way whether it be scary-safe or scary-dangerous. The difference is, we can choose to tap into our bravery to face the scary-safe situation! And again, there is nothing wrong with the smoke alarm, just like there is nothing wrong with your brain for feeling anxious.

So how do we know when it’s scary safe or scary dangerous? Well we think it begins with a question.

Is this a threat, challenge or opportunity?

If we can train our amygdala, AKA the Guard Dog, to ask this question when we feel anxious, we will be able to work out if what we are facing is scary-safe (important to us) or scary-dangerous. This question is so powerful that we made a song about it, called 99 times.

Here are the lyrics to the chorus:

“Asking your amygdala this question is key.

Is it a threat, challenge oran opportunity?

99 times we tend to forget, that 99 times it is not a threat.”

We have been lucky enough at Grow Your Mind to have neuroscientist, Dr Sarah Mckay as one of our advisors. Mckay taught me to ask this question during one of my fact checking sessions with her years ago about the different brain parts we talk about in Grow Your Mind. It has always stayed with me and at every parent or teacher event we have hosted it seems to be one of the more powerful tips we can share. Because the thing that we all tend to forget is that not all stress is bad stress. We feel ‘stressed’ when real or imagined pressures exceed our perceived ability to cope. We have triggers, or stressors that can send us spiralling into anxious feelings. Mckay suggests that we redefine ‘stressors’ using the phrase threats, challenges or opportunities.

Threat – crossing a road in the dark with my eyes closed dressed in black clothing

Challenge – finishing my assignment by the due date

Opportunity – to race against my school friends at the carnival

Now let’s say you feel anxious, you ask yourself the question, you work out it is a challenge or an opportunity, how on earth do you get your body and mind to relax a little?! 

Sample page from the podcast journal 

5 ways to calm your anxious feelings

The song 99 times offers a few ideas:

“So how do we get our brave to be louder and more strong, than the fear in our stomach that something will go wrong? Remind yourself nobody is perfect in the end. Not even your older brother or overachieving friend 

We all get to stuff up, stumble, freak out and fail So tell that guard dog to chill and wag its tail.

Say an affirmation that helps you feel strong: Like – i’ve got this, i can be brave or get things wrong.

 Tell your self limiting thoughts to take break. It’s time to shine, expand and take up space…”

And if the song is not for you, here are 5 tried and tested strategies that Young, Mckay and Grow Your Mind all suggest!

  1. Breathe! In for 4, pause, out for 2, pause. Repeat 2 times
  2. Move your body – get outside in nature, do it with a friend or family member. Get your heart rate up and feel the air on your face
  3. Try the 3 by 3 by 3! Look around you and name three things you see. Then, name three sounds you hear. Finally, move three parts of your body — your ankle, fingers, or arm.
  4. Sigh and say an affirmation: Breath in twice in quick succession through your nose (you’ll make a sniffing sound as you do so). Hold your breath for four seconds. Then very slowly exhale through your mouth. Followed by an affirmation such as “Ive got this…. I am brave… Safe scary…. Opportunity not a threat.”
  5. Jump in a cold body of water, take a freezing shower or if none of these options are available at school! Splash water on your face.

Other ideas

Sample page from the podcast journal 

Remember, our role as parents and educators is not to convince kids that they are brave and strong, but rather to provide the experiences that will show them. If we keep providing experiences where children ask the threat challenge or opportunity question and they see that they can handle the discomfort of anxiety, we are making progress and we are changing the narrative of anxiety. As Young says: 

“Courage is not about the outcome, but about handling that discomfort. If they’ve handled that discomfort this week for longer than they did last week, then they’ve been brave enough. These are the profound, important, necessary foundations for recognising that they can feel anxious and do brave.”

The questions we ask matter.