How do I help my kid with their anxiety?
This interview is from A Kids Book About: The Podcast, with host Matthew Winner and author of A Kids Book About Anxiety, Ross Szabo. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling that is extreme nervousness that doesn't go away.
Ross has anxiety. He also works with lots of kids who have anxiety. Kids who may be just like you.
There are a lot of people who don't have anxiety or anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health disorder. And it impacts around 15 to 18% of people.
So, the vast majority of people listening to this don't have an anxiety disorder. They can feel nervous. They can feel scared. They can feel fear. They can feel all the normal range of emotions, but a massive majority of people do not have an anxiety disorder or anxiety.
Let’s listen to Ross describe what it was like for him to feel anxiety when he was a kid.
So for me, especially when I was ages 5 to 10, the symptoms were pretty strong. And it would start with me feeling like there was like a tiny ball, like a little bouncy ball moving up through my chest. And by the time it got to my chest, it felt like the size of a baseball. And it was closing off my ability to breathe. And I felt like the walls were caving in and I felt like I couldn't escape and I couldn't get out of a room.
A lot of times my symptoms were also just like uncontrollably crying.
So a lot of times we cry and something happened and it hurts. But when I had anxiety, it was like uncontrollable tears that I couldn't stop.
And so those were some of the symptoms, some other symptoms were I'd feel really hot, like I was sweating and I couldn't cool off, even in a room that wasn't warm. So, you know, I always tell people to kind of look for those physical or mental symptoms, if you feel like you're sweating and it's too hot, if you feel like the walls are caving in, if you feel like, you know, you are kind of uncontrollably crying, like there's a big difference between the kind of mental symptoms versus the physical symptoms.
Anxiety affects different people in different ways. But it also enters people’s lives differently.
There's a couple of different causes. There can be kind of situational anxiety. People have phobias about very common things, spiders, heights, the dark, closets, whatever it could be.
There's also biological anxiety that doesn't have a cause, where people feel a level of anxiety every single day that's uncontrollable.
So it is helpful to understand like, yes, some anxiety is kind of almost [an] exaggerated reaction to situations, but there is also a type of anxiety that's just constant and doesn't actually have a cause and doesn't have a reason. It's part of our biology.
When something is part of your biology, it means that it is the natural way your body functions. Your eyes or hair are a certain color. That’s your biology. You have allergies or freckles or you’re taller than the other kids in your class. That’s your biology.
So if people in your family have anxiety, you are more likely to develop anxiety, much like if people in your family all have brown eyes, you are more likely to have Brown eyes, or if people in your family all have curly hair, you're more likely to have curly hair. But it doesn't mean you definitely will.
You could be born into a family where a lot of people have anxiety and not develop it. You could be born into a family where no one has anxiety and develop it. I think sometimes we get so caught up on like, where does it come from that we forget to address it when we're actually feeling it. And we get so lost in it, like, well, “Why and how and when?”, instead of being like, “Okay. It's here. What do we do about it?”
Understanding ourselves better is a big part of this show. That might be understanding how or why we feel things we do, understanding what we notice going on in the world, or understanding how our bodies work. This next bit is about your body and it is awesome.
All of our emotions and behaviors in life have pathways in our brains. So when we learn how to play a sport, when we learn how to play an instrument, when we learn how to walk, when we learn how to run, when we learn how to do all the things that we kind of love to do as kids, we're actually creating pathways in our brain for those kinds of behaviors.
We also have pathways in our brain for anxiety. And so it doesn't necessarily matter where it comes from once it's there, the more you experience anxiety, the deeper that pathway in your brain gets. And so to actually change it, you have to develop different coping skills and different ways to talk about it and different ways to manage it or you just keep using that same pathway in your brain and it makes your anxiety bigger and bigger and bigger.
If you manage anxiety, you may already have a set of coping skills that work well for you. If not, I hope what Ross said next can help you find those coping skills that will work best for you.
I think everyone's goal with anxiety should be to get better at recognizing it when it happens and finding ways to address it. There will be some people who get so good at it that it doesn't affect them in the same way as it did when they were younger and everyone's journey in doing that takes a different amount of time.
So like for me, I didn't always have a cause for my anxiety.
There were times where I would just be sitting in school. And start to feel like I couldn't breathe and start to feel like the walls are caving in and it didn't actually have a cause. And so the first step for me was really just being able to understand like, “Oh, this is that thing. This is that feeling.” And then finding ways to try and slow it down.
So some things that I would do is I would focus on like one part of my desk so that I was just looking at one thing instead of taking in. Everything that was happening.
Another thing I would do is breathe slowly. When anxiety would hit me and it felt like I couldn't breathe. I wanted to slow down and take slower breaths to get oxygen into my brain and body and help calm the part of my brain that is tied to anxiety.
Talking about, uh, what was happening to me was a really good coping mechanism to try and identify what's happening and slow it down.
You know, there are a lot of other coping skills, but I think those three are three good ones to kind of focus-in on.
No matter how you’re feeling, I’m on your side. Ross is on your side. There are grownups that care about you and are on your side. And your friends… they’re definitely on your side, too.
I hope that you know that it's okay to not be okay. It's okay to have all of the emotions that you feel. And the earlier that you start talking about them and doing things to address them or work on them, the better it can make your elementary school, your middle school, your high school experience.
So I hope that when you read the book, you realize you're not alone. There are a lot of other people like you. And the more we talk about this, the better we will get with all of them.
Each week on A Kids Book About: The Podcast, we talk about the big things going on in your world with a different author from our A Kids Book About series. This week, we spoke with Ross Szabo, the author of A Kids Book About Anxiety.