Managing Stress and Anxiety in Children
Life is full of many experiences, both happy and stressful. They are a part of everyday life for both adults and children. Learning how to manage stress is a key life skill. For many children, it can be challenging coping with stressful situations and can lead to anxiety. Anxiety is one of the most common mental health disorders in children. Stress and anxiety can have many effects on overall health, and they can lead to a disruption in sleep, immunity, gastrointestinal health and more. With all this in mind, there are many ways in which we can help children learn how to handle stressful situations and provide them the support they need to avoid further problems.
Decrease Screen Time
One of the most prevalent issues in today’s youth is screen time. We all have heard that it is wise to decrease the amount of time our children spend with screens, but why? According to one study, when children and adolescents were exposed to more than one hour per day of screen time, including cell phones, computers and television, it impacted their psychological well-being where they developed lower self-control, more distractibility, became less emotionally stable and difficult to care for, and had a difficult time making friends. Over time, adolescents are more likely to develop depression or anxiety and the need to seek psychological help.
The chemistry within the brain becomes altered where the number of dopamine receptors within the brain decrease over time, leading to addiction. Findings in brain scans have shown atrophy in the gray matter, particularly within the frontal lobe where executive functioning, impulse control, organization and planning are governed. Furthermore, damage occurred in the portion of the brain which is involved in developing empathy and compassion towards others. White matter also becomes compromised affecting connections and communications within the brain. In children whose neurological health is already compromised, such as in ADHD, autism and genetic predisposition to anxiety and depression, screen time must be taken into great consideration when it comes to the health of our children. So, get your children outside spending more time with friends and family. This is far more valuable to their growth and development.
Sleep and Exercise
Sleep is vital to our mental and physical health. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, children ages 6-12 should sleep 9-12 hours per night and teenagers should sleep 8-10 hours per night. Inadequate sleep disrupts the entire hypothalamic-adrenal-pituitary axis causing shifts in the production of serotonin, melatonin, cortisol, GABA and other hormones and neurotransmitters. When excitatory neurotransmitters are on overdrive they can compromise performance and cognitive function, and the ability to handle stressful situations in a healthy, rational manner.
Exercise is a great way to alleviate stress. It is truly the natural way of getting our bodies natural, feel good endorphins released, alleviating those negative emotions associated with stress and anxiety. It has the added benefit of helping us cope with stressful situations with more patience.
As Hippocrates said, ‘Let thy food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.’ I am not a big pill pusher, in my opinion it is much better to receive your nutrients through whole, nutrient- rich foods. There are many nutrient deficiencies associated with anxiety.
Magnesium, a mineral found in foods, such as spinach, sunflower seeds, avocados and almonds, plays a role in multiple biochemical pathways within the body. It has a calming effect on the brain by activating GABA receptors. It has been shown to improve sleep, melatonin and cortisol, and decreases hyper-excitability of the central nervous system. Magnesium deficiency can also affect the balance of the gut microbiome, further causing issues with mood; especially since 90% of the body’s serotonin, one of the key neurotransmitters in mental health, is created in the gut.
Vitamin D, another common vitamin deficiency, is not only a key player in our immune health, but also our mental-emotional health. Vitamin D receptors located in regions of the brain and the limbic system help regulate mood and behavior. Vitamin D is also involved in the production of dopamine and serotonin. Vitamin D can not only be acquired from the sun, but also from fish like salmon and mackerel.
Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are required for the production of neurotransmitters. Some of these amino acids include taurine and L-theanine. Consuming adequate amounts of protein daily will help avoid these deficiencies.
Methyl folate and methylcobalamin, two essential B vitamins, have been associated with both anxiety and depression as well as other illnesses. These vitamins play a role in the methylation pathway, which supports our DNA, protein methylation, neurotransmitter production and more. Issues with this pathway, known as MTHFR, are common and is known to be linked to mood disorders and chronic health conditions.
Zinc is another vitamin that is used within the methylation pathway, thus supporting the production of neurotransmitters and mental health.
There are many wonderful herbs that can be used safely and effectively for children and adolescents. They can easily be taken in glycerine form or consumed in the form of teas, which I personally love.
Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, has been used in India for over 5000 years. It is known as an adaptogen where it helps modulate cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, and mimics GABA, thus helping the body to respond to emotional stress.
In a double-blind, randomized, controlled trial with Oxazepam, it was shown the Passionflower extract is equally effective for generalized anxiety disorder. It helps by working on GABA levels, thereby decreasing anxiety and improving sleep.
Lemon balm is another nice calming herb that that can be used to help alleviate feelings associated with stress and anxiety. The added benefit of this herb is that it is a good source of antioxidants.
Supplements and herbs aside, let’s not forget the power of speaking to our children. This is the time for them to learn how to cope with stress and anxiety and carry what they learn through adulthood. It is important for them to recognize what triggers their anxiety and stress. There are therapies that help provide skills needed to manage emotions in a healthy manner, such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). According to Kristin Dineen, LCSW at Insight Counseling of Ridgefield, who specializes in DBT, this therapy is extremely beneficial in teaching techniques that focus on mindfulness, acceptance, distractions, self-soothing, and recognizing thinking mistakes, ultimately being very effective for reducing anxiety. Other beneficial mind-body techniques include yoga, meditation, journaling and, one of my other favorites, the Tapping Method.
When helping children manage anxiety and stress, we want to be sure to address their emotions and needs. Teaching children how to confront their emotions will set them up for a healthy, balanced life.
Dr. Veena Verma-Dzik, ND, FIAMA is a board-certified Naturopathic Physician and certified medical acupuncturist who is highly experienced in treating acute and chronic health conditions. Dr. Verma received her doctorate from the University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine and received further training and certification in Acupuncture and Lyme Disease. Her other specialties include women’s health, ADD/ADHD, GI conditions, mood imbalances, allergies, and fatigue. Each patient she sees receives personalized, individual care involving research-based treatments and therapies from her own clinical experience and success. The therapies she prescribes include herbal medicine, nutritional therapeutics, homeopathic medicine, low dose immunotherapy, and acupuncture. She works collaboratively with practitioners and therapists in her office at Insight Counseling in Ridgefield, CT. 203.431.9726