Helping My Daughter With Anxiety by Addressing Its Physical Effects

My daughter is 11 and has a diagnosis of autism. Anxiety is an everyday challenge for my daughter and has been for as long as I can remember. Her heart beats double time, she panics, and this can lead to a meltdown.

When my daughter was around 9 years old, I purchased a cognitive behavioral book for children to see if I could help support her in understanding her worry. I bought it hoping, with some understanding, her worry would reduce. But at the time, my daughter just was not ready for that level of understanding. She found it difficult to grasp, and it didn’t have any impact in helping her with her anxiety beyond being able to identify what anxiety feels like within her body.

This made me realize understanding cognitive processes is difficult for everyone, and there must be a more practical way of relieving anxiety than looking solely at the thought patterns behind it. The more I read and researched anxiety, the more it dawned on me that the body has a distinctive physiological reaction when in fear. We all have a fight-or-flight response, and although not everyone will have the same reaction to the same thing, we tend to have similar physiological reactions when we experience anxiety.

Anxiety releases adrenaline, which makes our hearts beat faster, and in turn our breathing may increase. We may get a tingling sensation in our arms and legs. We may get a headache or a stomachache, and we may feel hot with our palms becoming sweaty. Having a written list of what anxiety feels like has helped us put strategies in place to address the physical symptoms as they arise.

We started with breathing — simple breathing exercises have helped us greatly, and I say us because everyone in our house uses them. It is a fast and simple way to start the calming process. We also started practicing a muscle relaxation meditation that contracts and then releases the muscles in turn to help them relax. Lastly we realized the need for space! A timeout from whatever we are doing can be so important for everyone, especially my daughter. Sometimes social situations and certain busy environments become too much for her. Simply having a five- to 10-minute timeout in a different room can make all the difference.

We choose to practice these strategies when my daughter is anxious as well as when she is not anxious so she can try to stop the anxiety from building up. I do think having an understanding of the cognitive side of anxiety does help and hope to visit that side with my daughter as she grows into her teens. But for now, using strategies to combat the physical elements of anxiety works for us.

Learning more about anxiety and how it presents physically in our bodies has helped everyone in my house greatly. It can be a scary time for anyone to have an anxiety attack, so having practical solutions to some of the symptoms helps take some of that fright away. My daughter may always have anxiety, but as her mother, I will try my best to help her manage it so it doesn’t hinder her achieving, and she feels confident enough that if she is feeling anxious, she will know what to do to reduce it.

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