Archive | July, 2014

What to do in those anxious moments: Getting out of your head

12 Jul

From Your Anxious Child: Emails to Parents by Edward H. Plimpton, PhD


Getting Out of Your Head


One effect that anxiety has on your child is that it creates intense self-preoccupation. In those moments, in whatever form his/her anxiety takes, all the child can focus on is the possibility of impending doom. And when your child is in such a state, he/she is not at his/her thinking best. When you find yourself in this position, consider some techniques that help the child get more focused and oriented to the external world. 


In a moment of panic, you might say to your child “Look into my eyes and copycat my breathing”.  The idea is to get the child really focused and task oriented on you and your relaxed breathing rather than how he/she is feeling.


54321 is a very practical orienting exercise developed by Tom Bunn in his book Soar on overcoming flying fears. This exercise involves noticing five things that you see, then five things that you hear, and then 5 things that feel, not in terms of emotions, but rather sensations. The process is repeated noticing four items in each category, then three, two and one. While doing this exercise, have your child say “I see…”, “I hear…” “I feel…” either to themselves or out loud. The exercise actually requires sustained effort and focus which in turn is helpful in moving the child’s attention away from himself. There are alternatives to this approach, one of which is to ask the child to identify 5 blue objects  in the room and if necessary continue with different colors. Or an even more open ended approach is to ask the child to look around the room and see what catches his/her eye. However, in a moment of high anxiety, most children need more structure and guidance about how to direct their attention. The car drive game of license plate is a game where the parent tries to relieve the discomfort of a long car by helping the child focus on something outside of the car. Yet another variation involves using a snow globe or glitter wand: you can ask your child to shake the wand or globe, pretend the glitter/snowflakes are their upset feelings and watch them settle at the bottom.  And as I mentioned in my essay on Goodnight Moon, in this classic book, the mother bunny is helping relieve the baby’s nighttime anxiety by focusing on what is actually in his/her bedroom. This provides a counterpoint to the growing internal anxiety as bedtime approaches.


As a point of clarification, you are not trying to distract your child, in the sense of not thinking about the worry, because we know that does not work. Trying not to think about something or thought suppression only makes the forbidden thought more powerful. To use a computer analogy, we are just trying to divide the child’s attention to multiple browsers or windows rather than have “anxiety” occupy the entire screen. In a manner of speaking, if anxiety does not get full attention, it gets bored and walks away. There are numerous variations on this idea–for example almost any hobby can serve this function. But as with any technique, it requires practice because there is no magic here and it will take some experimentation to find the variation on this idea that works best for your child.


 Copyright@Edward H.Plimpton, PhD 2014

Worry Management on the Go-A Simple Technique

12 Jul

From Your Anxious Child: Emails to Parents by Edward H. Plimpton, PhD

Worry Management on the Go-A Simple Technique

 In our quest to help anxious children, we are always on the lookout for simple things to help children in those anxious moments.  A very simple and portable technique for dealing with anxiety has appeared in a book for children, Scaredies Away! by Stacy Fiorille and Barry McDonagh, and in another one for adults by Alistair Horscroft called  Beat Anxiety Now. Both involve making a fist.

There are sound ideas operating in the simple technique to be described. The basic idea is that fighting anxious thoughts or trying not to think about them does not work. On some level, you have to accept that you are having an anxious thought or feeling.  So acknowledging them with or without some humor is important. Since anxiety can take the form of thoughts or feelings, noticing where they are in the body can transform the experience by this act of observation. The act of noticing is actually a version of facing your fear or doing an exposure. Anxiety narrows the perspective on the world, so relief involves finding a different frame of reference. One way to change perspective is to imagine transforming anxiety.

In Scaredies Away! the technique is called “The Magic Finger Countdown” and it consists of 4 steps. “Step One: Say ‘hello’ to each and every one of your fears and your body. Step Two: Make a fist and squeeze all of your scaredies out through your arm and into your fist. Step Three: Squeeze your fist tight and tell your fears you have them right where you want them. Step Four: Count down backwards from five while you release one finger at a time. Blow those fears away to make sure they’re gone. Step Five: Say good-by to yours fears. Congratulate yourself on completing the technique! Trust yourself!”

An adult variation on this procedure has been suggested by Alistair Horscroft in his book Beat Anxiety Now, which may also be more acceptable to an older child or adolescent. It is also a five step process.

1. Point with your finger to the place in your head or body where your anxiety, stress or tension is located.
2. Imagine there is a window or door just over that area. Leave the window or door open.
3. Make a light fist with your hand and quietly acknowledge the thought or feeling by saying “yes” to yourself and repeat that several times to yourself.
4. Ask yourself whether you would be willing to let a little of that tension go. Then open your hand and just imagine some of that tension, worry or feeling leaving your body. Don’t try to remove all of the tension, just a manageable bit of it. If you try to remove too much of the tension, it would like the circuits of your brain would get overloaded.
5. Repeat this several times during the day.

The similarity between these two techniques is quite apparent.  And the authors both caution that this  procedure isn’t magic and it takes practice. As with any technique, it needs to be introduced and practiced in nonanxious moments. It is hard to learn anything new in a highly anxious state.   I like the simplicity of the technique and its portability. You can pretty much do it anywhere for a wide range of anxiety. One child told me that she quietly made a fist under her desk at school and did this technique and was able to inconspicuously calm herself.  The books will obviously provide a more detailed explanation of this technique.




copyright@Edward H. Plimpton, PhD 2014