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

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