Anxiety & Stress in Children & Teens (and what yoga and mindfulness can do to help)
The number ONE reason I’m given for teenagers deciding to come to a yoga class is that they want tools to help them with stress and/or anxiety! Sure, there are some who come because they’d like to be more flexible, build strength, learn to focus better, but overwhelmingly most are coming due to issues they experience with stress and/or anxiety. I’m glad they realise that yoga can help with this but it’s also a little sad to hear so many feeling this way.
So how does yoga help?
First, to be clear, yoga does help but it’s not always a cure – especially when it comes to more severe cases of anxiety. In these instances, it’s very important that professional help is sought (a good starting point is your family GP).
Interestingly, headlines about stress and anxiety often come with the word “overcoming”, however it’s important to know that some anxiety and stress in our lives (adults, teens and younger children) is normal and even beneficial. Its when these states interrupt our ability to live life as we would like, or when our enjoyment of our lives is compromised by anxiety and/or stress that it becomes an unhealthy state.
One of the most hurtful things you can do to someone (including yourself!) is to judge someone’s stressful or anxious response to something as not worthy of their (or your) reaction to it! Our reactions to life’s events are deeply personal, with unhelpful thoughts and feelings often arriving without warning and not because you want them. So, if you’re trying to help an anxious or stressed person, compassion for the state they find themselves in is the way to go.
As with most things, it’s helpful to be proactive rather than wait for an emergency fix. So below are my Top 5 Tips on helping to contain anxiety long term. But if you find yourself in a desperate situation and need help straight away, I’m also including my Top 4 Tips for dealing with a meltdown in the moment. In real life, we usually need both…
Top 5 Tips for Handling Anxiety in Children and Teens
1. Have a regular yoga practice
Whether it’s 5 minutes or an hour, regularly practicing yoga helps “recalibrate” your energy. Anyone who practices yoga feels this. It’s like pressing the reset button on yourself. So rather than difficult emotional and mental states building and building until they become a problem in your life, you get the chance to reset your emotional state (among many other things!) when you practice yoga.
2. Increase the physicality
Many people think that relaxation is helpful with anxiety. However, until you’ve “shifted” the negative energy in your body, your mind is usually in no state for relaxation. The younger a child is, the more they seem to instinctively know that they need to “burn” some energy to enable themselves to calm down. Unfortunately, the way they choose to do this is often erratic and ineffective, instead leading to adults around them being unimpressed with their behaviour. If you’re able to guide a young child to practice a little yoga BEFORE they feel the need to zoom about (because they don’t know how else to deal with their anxious, stressed energy), you’ll likely see a big difference in their behaviour. A few sun salutes can do the trick!
The Sun Dance Song from Musical Yoga Adventures is great for little ones to get them motivated.
A Sun Salute is an easy sequence to learn (there are many variations) and you can do as many as you like to reach a state of calm. The main thing with a yoga “flow” like this is to try to synchronise your breath with your movement.
For yoga to work, it’s important to notice how your body is feeling throughout the practice, this will help you determine how many sun salutes to do, whether to hold a few poses for a couple of breaths and when you’ve done enough. With younger children, ask them how they are feeling after they’ve completed one or two rounds, ask them whether they feel ready to sit quietly for a little while. This leads to my next tip:
3. Be Still
Once some energy’s shifted, it’s time to come to stillness. Find a comfortable position – whether it’s lying down or sitting - and see if you can bring your whole body to stillness. So still that the only parts of you that are moving are what’s needed to breath. Then watch that breath, notice how your body breathes in and then breathes out. Try to stay here for at least a minute. If you know yoga breathing exercises from yoga classes you attend and you know they help you feel calm, you could try a breathing practice now.
4. SIFT your Mind
Dr Dan Siegel explains this process in his book “The Whole-Brain Child”, and again in “Brainstorm”, as awareness of what’s going on in your mind. What are you Sensing, what Images are coming up in your mind, how are you Feeling and what Thoughts are arising. Younger children will need to be guided through this process, with the option of drawing something afterward as a reflection of their SIFTing experience. Journaling is a great option here for older children and teenagers. You can learn more about SIFTing here and while you’re there, check out another great tool called the “Wheel of Awareness”.
5. Enrol in a regular yoga class!
When children and teens go to a regular yoga class, they start to collect a “toolbox” of ways to deal with many difficult situations. They get to experiment with how they feel, while learning to practice yoga in a safe way so that over time, they know what poses, sequences, breathing practices and meditations feel like and are better equipped to choose what works best for them.
After School Teen Yoga runs in school terms at the Old Courthouse Wollongong. You can book a spot here! If you’re looking for a class for younger children, there are a few quality classes around the area, a google search should find you one (feel free to contact me for advice on local classes). If you’d like yoga in you or your child’s school then ask your school to get in touch and we’ll hopefully be able to organise it!
And what to do in the moment when you’re having an anxiety meltdown? Here’s my Top 4 tips. They’re in order and feel free to stop after Tip 1 or 2 (but don’t forget Tip 4!).
Top 4 Tips for Handling an Anxiety Meltdown:
1. Ground yourself with your senses
a. What can you see? (purposely look at 5 objects you can see right now)
b. What can you touch? (touch 5 different things)
c. What can you hear? (see if you can hear 5 distinct sounds)
Take 5 mindful breaths…. Then take 5 more!
For the first 5 breaths, breathe in through your nose…. Then out through your mouth…. Haaaa. Aim for long, slow breaths, with the focus on your exhale.
Then close your mouth and take 5 more breaths, just in and out, slow and long, through your nose.
3. Huh Breaths
Shrug your shoulders up high, as close as you can to your ears, breathing in all the way up…. Then exhale saying “HUH!” as you let your shoulders fall back down.
4. Make a Promise
Promise yourself you’ll practice more self-care and take up yoga!