Natural Treatments for Childhood Anxiety
Anxiety disorders are becoming more prevalent in recent years. Adults and children alike suffer from various forms of anxiety, including extreme fear or worry, generalized anxiety, panic attacks, agoraphobia, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behavior, post-traumatic stress, selective mutism, separation anxiety, and specific phobias. Anxiety disorders are closely related and often overlap with other conditions, including depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, mood imbalance, and body dysmorphia. One common denominator that raises anxiety levels and alters mood is chronic stress.
Researchers in the field of psychoneuroimmunology, the study of the effect of the mind on health and resistance to disease, have identified that chronic stress can lead to or exacerbate anxiety and mood disorders. More specifically, it is our emotional signals or molecules that generate an adaptive stress response which directly affects our immune cells, hormones, and nervous system. As a result, anxious individuals experience signs and symptoms, such as body fidgeting, biting fingernails, tapping feet, racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, nausea, and stomach discomfort. As persistent thought patterns associated with anxiety can lead to feelings of impending doom or helplessness, increased anxiety can also leave individuals vulnerable to depression, bipolar disorder, cognitive (thinking) problems, personality, or behavior changes.
Every child experiences some temporary and usually harmless form of anxiety. While stress and anxiety are considered a normal factor of life that can drive growth and motivational change, prolonged stress and anxiety that goes unmanaged can negatively impact one’s health and sense of well-being. Furthermore, untreated children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss important social experiences, engage in substance abuse, experience intense thoughts of fear and nervousness, and at worse engage in self-harm.
Reasons for increased anxiety
Childhood and teenage pressures are high when it comes to home-school-friend-life balance. These include parental pressures (such as: moving to a new location, losing a parent or grandparent, experiencing parental divorce or separation, building parent-child relationships, witnessing abusive parental relationships, establishing family roles, abiding family rules), peer pressures (such as: building friendships, overcoming bullying, achieving popularity, growing a self-image, social groupings, and social media), school pressures (such as: starting school, achieving good grades, graduating), societal pressures (such as: terrorism/racism, media fears, social media pressures, perceived threats, social groups, gender conformity).
Causes of anxiety:
While the cause of anxiety stems from increased pressures as mentioned above, factors including a combination of genetic, environmental, psychological, developmental factors, over-scheduled children, poor sleep, and improper nutrition all play key roles.
Natural Ways to improve anxiety states
1. Diet: There is a direct relationship between nutrition and brain function. As our food today is more processed and deplete of nutrients, it is important that steps are put in place to enable your child to receive vital nutrients to build their immune and nervous system. Good food builds good mood is the motto!
- Eat organic fresh living foods To provide the maximum amount of natural nutrition, eat whole organic fresh fruit and vegetables. Living vitamins and minerals and plant compounds provide active ingredients to one’s living body.
- Increase protein and healthy fats Seek out grass-fed meat from animals and poultry that have been fed on hormone-free organic foods. Increase wild-caught fish that’s high in omega 3 fatty acids and low in mercury. Extra protein can also be obtained by eating eggs, legumes, beans, nuts and seeds.
- Reduce sugar intake Highly refined or processed sugar is simply glucose, and can stimulate the brain and rapidly crash in energy soon after. It’s not sustainable energy and can create symptoms of ADD/ADHD, brain fog, fatigue, and irritability. Replace processed sugary foods with complex carbohydrates like fruits and vegetables. Try healthy snacks such as carrot, jicama, cucumber, bell pepper and celery sticks.
- Increase water Water is one of the most essential ingredients for a healthy mind and body. Our bodies are composed more of water than actual proteins. Encourage your child to drink half of their body weight in fluid ounces. Drink infused fruit water or dilute fruit juice to only one-third juice and rest as filtered water.
- Check for Allergies The most common allergies and food sensitivities are gluten, dairy, sugar and yeast. Food sensitivities are essentially altered immune signals that trigger a scattered and unfocused mind, asthma, hay fever, skin reactions, or digestive issues.
2. Avoid and Reduce Toxic Chemicals: Chemicals in food, environment, and household products contribute to weakening your child’s immune, endocrine, and nervous systems. In particular, plastics, pesticides, and heavy metals have been shown to alter immune function (e.g.: allergies, food intolerance), disrupt hormonal signaling (e.g.: obesity, early menses), and arrest nerve growth (cognitive delay, ADD/ADHD), respectively. Therefore, it is best to limit chemical exposure when possible, and replace toxic products with chemical-free alternatives.
3. Exercise: When you exercise, your body can also exercise your mind. Body movement transforms persistent thoughts and encourages awareness of feelings of strength and endurance. Children require a lot of exercise and play time. Encourage your child to engage in sports, outdoor activities, sweating, and muscle strengthening. A strong body can easily influence a strong mind and improved self-image.
4. Effective Parenting: Children can easily become anxious and stressed by their surrounding environment. When parents and teachers are anxious, the children often absorb these emotions, resulting in altered behavior, moodiness, or restlessness. When adults are peaceful, children are likely to become peaceful too.
- Self Esteem. Your child’s self esteem is one of the most important factors that affects their mind and body image. When a child feels good about themselves, they tend to socialize easily, appreciate their body, and do well in learning. Self-esteem and confidence are built from within. Parents, remember to give love to yourself- your child is watching your every mood, smile, and comment.
- Teach Responsibility. Give your child small tasks from an early age so they learn how to take responsibility for themselves and for others.
- Breathing. The body and brain rely on oxygen to operate efficiently, and it is important that children get enough oxygen into their body through regular, rhythmic breathing. Elevated anxiety levels can induce panic attacks that stem from shallow breathing, constricted vessels and poor oxygen supply to the brain. Teach mindful meditation and breath work to calm down the anxious mind and body.
- Ability to Change. Encourage children to be flexible in their body and mind. There are many ways to achieve successful outcomes. Encourage your child to find their own unique way. They need to know there are different ways to handle the same situation.
- Explore a New Environment. If an environment is making your child anxious, then remove them from what’s not working. Expose them to new environments where they feel empowered and can express themselves and build relationships and confidence with like-minded individuals.
- Boundaries. Children thrive on positive guidelines. While some may rebel for a short time, they often learn and respect the boundaries from an early setting. Be consistent to avoid confusion and mixed messages.
- Use Positive Words. Words play a huge impact on how your child reacts to situations and how they feel about themselves. Negative words or phrases can be anxiety triggers for children. Avoid words such as, ‘never or always,’ ‘if only,’ ‘difficult,’ ‘can’t,’ or ‘impossible.’ Avoid judgment words such as ‘good vs bad,’ ‘right vs wrong,’ and replace them with words such as ‘appropriate.’ Remember to listen first, and then offer non-judgmental advice or constructive discipline.
While the conventional first-line treatment for most anxiety disorders includes medication and cognitive behavioral therapy, complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) offers unique strategies that address underlying factors and begin to correct imbalance from child to adulthood. Naturopathic medicine, herbal prescriptions, acupuncture, therapeutic massage, homeopathy, and aromatherapy are all beneficial natural interventions for treating your child’s anxiety and mood disorders.
Dr. Zitserman is a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist at: Collaborative Natural Health Partners, LLC in Manchester, CT. She offers a myriad of treatment modalities for anxiety and mood disorders from herbal medicine and nutritional counseling to acupuncture and advanced lab work up. She is an in-network provider with most major health insurance companies and is accepting new patients. Please call 860-533-0179 for an appointment.