In one single moment, at the age of twenty-five, my life changed completely. Whilst on holiday, all the way on the other side of the world, I found myself having my first real experience of uncontrollable anxiety.
During dinner in a busy restaurant that very first night, I became overwhelmed with fear and ended up projectile vomiting across the dinner table. I was absolutely mortified, ashamed, embarrassed and confused.
I had no idea what just happened as anxiety was completely unknown to me.
Over the following five years, I slowly began to feel more anxious, more frequently, and for a growing list of different reasons – all until I discovered the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness, along with meditation, and self reflection, helped me learn how to control my own anxious thoughts and feelings, and I’m happy to say that I now live anxiety free – and I’m here to share what I have learnt with you.
Understanding anxiety in children and adults: How it works
If your child experiences worry or anxiety themselves, the most important and helpful thing you can do is to understand how anxiety actually works.
After gaining an inside understanding of anxiety, you can then start to nurture the seeds of calm in them with a simple practice of redirecting their attention back to the peace of the present moment.
Here is a simple way of understanding how the feelings of anxiety can occur.
I call it The ISO (Inner Safety Officer) Method…
Fight or Flight
The direct experience of anxiety is often described as a feeling of sickness in the stomach, a feeling of nervous energy, racing thoughts that are difficult to switch off, a lack of appetite and not being able to sleep properly. These feelings are part of a survival tool called the flight or flight reaction.
When your body senses danger, it will release adrenaline into the bloodstream, which makes your heart beat faster, creates a super boost of extra energy and gives you a strong focus on the potential danger. This reaction increases your chances of survival when facing physical or emotional pain.
So why does your child sometimes experience this sense of fear and worry when they’re just thinking about something bad happening in the future?
The Thought Screen
To explain how thoughts can trigger the feeling of anxiety, imagine yourself sitting on a chair, facing a large television screen. Imagine a video playing on this screen of you and your loved ones laughing, hugging, and having a great time. How do you feel as you view the images on this screen?
You would likely feel happy and excited. Potentially full of love and joy.
Now imagine the video suddenly changes to images of someone you don’t like, maybe someone who bullied you, or an argument you recently had. How do you now feel?
You would likely feel sad and upset. Maybe even angry.
Although you are sitting on the exact same chair, in the exact same room, looking at the exact same television screen, the way you feel differs depending on the images you are watching on this screen. You may or may not have realised before now, but you have a similar screen inside your brain called your thought screen. This is the place you see every worrying thought you have.
To help you witness your thought screen firsthand, close your eyes and picture the front door to your home for a moment. What colour is it? What is it made of? The place you are imagining your front door, is on your thought screen.
Just like the large television screen, how you feel in everyday life will differ depending on the images you see on your inner thought screen.
Next, is something incredibly important to keep in mind; you and your child are not responsible for creating the worrying thoughts you see on your thought screen – that is the job of the mind.
Allow me to explain….
The Safety Officer
See your mind as a little Safety Officer that works from inside your brain. As the name suggests, the main goal of your safety officer is to keep you safe, and it does so by creating thoughts of the future.
Future thoughts can help you to plan ahead, and avoid experiencing pain or discomfort. These cautious thoughts are created by your safety officer around absolutely any event – even with something as simple as preparing for a holiday.
Your safety officer may create thoughts about you leaving your passport at home, losing all of your money whilst being stranded in an unknown location, or being unable to find your hotel and left wandering the unsafe streets.
These are all things that could happen on your holiday, and your safety officer wants to warn you of these dangers through your thoughts.
Because of these future thoughts, you now have the opportunity to plan ahead and avoid being caught out by these scenarios.
To put it simply, your mind uses thoughts to help you avoid future danger, your body uses the fight or flight reaction to help you deal with present danger.
However, the two can cross over…
Anxiety in children and adults
The biggest problem when it comes to your mind creating cautious thoughts for you is this;
Your body can’t tell the difference between imagination and reality.
For example, imagine you suddenly see a wild dog charging towards you about to attack, your body sees the danger and triggers the fight or flight reaction to help you deal with it. If however, you were just thinking about a wild dog attacking you, your body would see these image on your inner thought screen, mistake them for reality and trigger the fight or flight reaction in the exact same way.
Your body will always emotionally respond to whatever you are thinking about. Whether good or bad.
The trick with teaching your child to live anxiety-free is learning to prevent the fight or fight reaction from being triggered by their thoughts. When your child is feeling anxious, one of the most powerful things you can do is to help guide their attention away from their inner thought screen and back to the peace of the present moment by helping them reconnect with their breath and senses.
Regularly practicing this with your child will help them to internalise the process. They will naturally find themselves connecting with the calmness of their breath and senses when beginning to feel anxious.
In the next blog post I will share five simple tools to help calm your child as well as explaining the reasons why these tools work.
Imagine Eating Lemons – A children’s introduction to mindfulness
Jason Rhodes is a wellness coach who specialises in overcoming social anxiety, performance anxiety, anxiety in relationships and generalised anxiety with mindfulness. He came to write the children’s book Imagine Eating Lemons as part of a much larger vision. He wants to educate the younger generation with the simple tools needed to help manage their thoughts and feelings, resulting in a much more peaceful and connected world. Having suffered from extreme anxiety himself for many years he discovered the practice of mindfulness and life quickly began to change. He has now ended his career as a film actor and decided to focus all of his energy on helping to spread awareness of this life-changing practice. Follow him on Instagram @jasonrhodeswellness and Facebook.
My younger son gets anxiety, and so do I. This book was one recommended by his psychologist and it was great for him. I like the idea of the “safety officer” and might use that with him to remind him the safety officer is doing it’s job, but sometimes he’s an over-achiever and makes us worry too much.
Thank you for your comment Stephanie. I’m happy to hear the book was recommend to your son. I hope it helped.
Yes, you’ve nailed it. Our mind is only trying to help keep us safe, but it often works TOO hard and floods us with cautious thoughts. In the next/final blog post I share five things to help when the mind is going overboard in this way. I hope it’s helpful. Jason
I suffer from terrible bouts of anxiety and so does my daughter. I seem to go through phases and it effects my tummy too. Great article
I think this is so amazing! Everyone needs to read this. We all know someone in our lives who’s suffering from anxiety, and understanding what they’re going through goes a long way to being able to help them.
Thank you for your comment Beth. You’re absolutely right, understanding is essential. Especially to better connect with someone who experiences anxiety yet you don’t yourself. It can be such a strange concept to someone whoop doesn’t experience anxiety. Feel free to share the post. Have a great day
It’s great to hear that mindfullness etc helped you control your anxious thoughts. It takes time to be able to do this and is something we need to teach children to learn to do too.
Thank you for your comment Sarah. Anxiety is such a common and normal response to stress. We are collectively learning how to manage it though. I’m glad you found the post helpful.
Thank you for your comment Melanie. You’re absolutely right. It took me a couple of years of daily practice until it fully clicked and was able to separate myself from my thoughts and become the observer of them. It’s a continued practice but has made life so much more enjoyable. If children can be taught this at a young age it can really set that strong foundation for navigating the challenges of life 🙂
I think we all know someone who suffers from anxiety, but with kids it must be even trickier to know whether it’s anxiety or not. Some really interesting thoughts x
I’ve always shoved any claim of anxiety under the carpet and never thought how real it is. Well, I am learning a lot about it, it is not to be taken lightly. Thank you so much for the information.
I’ve heard of that book and I think it’s really smart to talk about this with kids at an early age so they understand the feelings of anxiety and recognize when an attack is coming on.
I suffered from axiety when this pandemic starts, I lost everything including my job. I only healed with the help of my family.
I think there are so many people today with issues like this. Anything to help is a good thing. It makes you wonder why there are so many people with anxiety these days.
I started suffering from anxiety a few years ago. After trying meds, I started seeing a homeopath who discovered adrenal fatigue – I am 4 months into my new treatment and feeling a million times better. Whatever route you go, you don’t have to just suffer through.
This is a really eye opening read. Understanding anxiety in children is really important.