What is anxiety?

Anxiety, especially among children, is on the rise. Family Works intake worker Emily Craigie explains what anxiety is, why it is becoming more prevalent, and what can be done to help.

Emily has a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in psychology and criminology, and runs a Family Works anxiety group for children and their whānau. The group is funded by Upper Hutt City Council.

What is anxiety?

Emily says anxiety is an inherent part of cognitive processing and everyone experiences it, but some people really struggle to manage the emotion. Anxiety is part of the human fight or flight response, however, in today’s world there is not necessarily a threat of physical harm present.

“Lots of people will feel anxious about social situations and that is your brain interpreting the situation as a threat, but because there isn’t anything actually intruding on your safety, it is very confusing for your brain to figure out.”

She says there are four common types on anxiety: social anxiety, general anxiety, separation anxiety, and specific anxiety, which is being anxious about a specific thing, such as Covid-19.

How does it affect people?

Emily says anxiety can affect the body in physical ways such as increased heartrate, sweating, feeling shaky, and panic attacks. But it can also have much broader effects on people’s lives as it can lead to significant avoidance of situations. For example, if someone has social anxiety, they will probably go out of their way to avoid most social interaction.

The Covid-19 effect

Emily says since the Covid-19 pandemic began Family Works has seen a lot more anxiety in children and the wider population. A lot of the anxiety is directly related to the pandemic, but there is also a lot of concern about the general state of society.

“Since Covid-19 there has been huge increase in school aged children who are facing anxiety.

“I think a lot of children have missed out on a really significant part of their development socially by having to be at home for long periods of time. They’re worried about going back to school but also worried about missing out on school.”

Having long periods of isolation and staying in one place is not our natural state, and adults being anxious about things can be passed onto children as well.

Ways to help

Emily says it is good for someone experiencing anxiety, particularly children, to understand what anxiety is and where it comes from. It’s also helpful to understand that anxiety is a reaction that is there to help keep you safe and that it is entirely normal.

“Working in a group setting is key to the programme, as doing the programme with people their own age who have a shared experience makes the children feel less alone.”

She also teaches mindfulness practices to help group participants calm down and involves the childrens’ family in a whānau session so that they too can offer support when it’s needed.

“You can give the kids all the tools in the world and support them as much as you can, but they are only here with me for an hour once a week, so if we don’t share those tools with other people around them it is not going to make as much of an impact in their day to day lives.”

A partnership with The Tindall Foundation

Thanks to funding from The Tindall Foundation, Family Works Central has developed and produced some much-needed resources for children, particularly those experiencing anxiety and identity issues. The ‘I Am Me’ Journals provide a physical keepsake resource for tamariki and rangatahi to make notes and record their thoughts, feelings and achievements. The books are filled with positive affirmations and mindful activities. In addition, The Tindall Foundation has recently supported the creation of “Take a Breath Baskets” for the anxiety programme participants. The baskets include take-home resources including the I Am Me Journal, and sensory toys which help children become calm and regain their focus.

3 top tips for managing anxiety

  1. Keep track of how you are feeling. Understanding what you are feeling can help manage your anxiety. Participants in Family Works anxiety group have a chart on their fridge where they can show how anxious they feel on any given day.
  2. Breathing exercises: Anxiety can cause you to breathe faster, so try to focus on your breathing, and inhale and exhale slowly.
  3. Learn about anxiety to get a greater understanding of how you are feeling. Understanding where it comes from, what it is, and why it happens can make it less scary.

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