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Understanding Anxiety

Dr. Claire Conlon

Senior Clinical Psychologist

What is anxiety?

Most people do not recognize their anxiety for what it is, which is a completely normal part of being human. We need to feel a sense of fear or anxiety in order to keep us safe. The fear system is what prevents us from walking out in front of a car or putting our hand on a hot object. It is the body’s way of alerting us to danger in our environment and preventing us from coming to harm by getting the body ready to run, fight or freeze to prevent danger.

The problem is when this ‘alarm system’ becomes faulty and instead of it alerting us to real danger it triggers the body to think there is some danger when there is not. Think of a toaster that burns toast and the fire engine arrives every time!

When this occurs we feel the physical symptoms of anxiety in our body, our body prepares for this fight, flight or freeze moment but there is nothing we need to run away from and nothing we need to fight. In this case the body has prepared to use this excess blood in our body but instead it gets stored, which can lead to pain/discomfort in our body over time.

What symptoms occur in my body when I feel anxious?

When we experience anxiety, we feel lots of symptoms in the body, this is the same for individuals of any age. We might feel warm, sweaty, racing heart, tummy pains, increased toileting behaviours, red face and even a red rash on the body, trembling legs and arms, tiredness, chest pain, difficulties breathing and tension all over the body.

Some people are preoccupied with the physical symptoms of anxiety (e.g., stomach aches, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, etc.). Others worry about the impact these symptoms are having on their health, body and mind, thinking they are going crazy or about to have a heart attack for example. However, these thoughts just add to our feelings of anxiety and lead to an increased cycle of anxiety.

The first step to successfully feel like you have control over your anxiety and your child’s anxiety, is to learn what it is, how to recognise it and also how to control it. These are the ways that help us to break the cycle of anxiety. It might sounds hard but it can be done!

Some key factors to know:

1. Anxiety is normal

2. Anxiety is our way to keep us safe

3. Anxiety can help us, it allows us to get pumped up and ready for key events in life, such as exams, interviews or physical events.

4. It is not going to harm us but can make us feel uncomfortable and overtime can impact on our mood and quality of life

5. We can learn to control it by ‘turning it down’ when the alarm goes off without any real danger present.

Anxiety in children.

Children can feel anxious for many reasons. Changes in the family situation, pandemics!!!, lack of control or certainty, having a parent who is anxious, witnessing any scary events, having a sensory difficulty and experiencing loss or separation can all increase feelings of anxiety in children. Anxiety can impact children in relation to school attendance, social skills, general wellbeing and can affect sleep, diet, mood and academic potential.

There are also many ways that we can help ourselves and our children to feel a sense of mastery or control over our anxiety and lead to feelings of confidence and increases in self-esteem.

Ways to reduce anxiety.

There are many ways to instantly reduce your anxiety such as breathing techniques and relaxation techniques. Exercising is an important way of reducing the built-up tension in the body by reducing muscle aches and pains over time. It is also very important to understand why you are feeling anxious in that moment, so you can understand what is driving this anxiety, rather than simply managing the symptoms as they occur. This is something that requires a little bit more thinking but leads to longer benefits in the future. Often how we respond to anxiety with our children we can help significantly, so parents finding ways to cope with their own anxiety and the anxiety in their child can be very helpful and lead to immediate improvements in the child, the parent and the family!

Check out Dr. Claire Conlon’s additional information on anxiety, such as anxiety workshop and parenting groups for anxious children, to get an in-depth understanding of anxiety and ways to ‘turn it down’ in individuals of all ages, children to adults! Included in these workshops and groups is details around what is anxiety, how to recognise it in ourselves and in children, ways to cope with anxiety and ways to push past anxiety to feel confident and increase our self-esteem.

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