Yoga for children with anxiety.

Yoga and mindfulness can help children and adolescents with severe anxiety.

As a yoga teacher to children over the past six yearsand with my personal practice, I have learnt better ways to control my own anxiety and fortunately been able to pass this onto my children and children in my yoga classes. Hopefully with this understanding and mindfulness training, they will be better equipped to face challenges (as they are just part of life) and better control negative thoughts and unhelpful ways of dealing with stress.

The facts:

One in three children now have a formal diagnosis of anxiety in Australia and the youngest are four years of age! This is a worrying statistic, considering that anxiety can contribute to other diseases and physical conditions, such as obesity, heart disease and an array of other mental and physical ailments.

What is anxiety?

  • It is a normal response to a perceived threat.
  • It is a physical, behavioural and cognitive response in the body.
  • Humans have it to protect us from danger and some stress is good for us, but when it is out of control it can cause debilitating affects to an individual.  
  • Some level of anxiety is good for us as it gives us energy and motivation to do our best and get things done.  

Development of anxiety can come from biological/genetic influences and general temperament, a stress or trauma that has occurred in a child’s life and/or environmental learning influences, that is; we can role model positive responses to anxiety or negative ones.  

For the non-competitive child, who may present with signs of anxiety, a yoga class could be the best option.

How yoga and mindfulness can help.

Yoga is recommended as a complementary therapy for people with anxiety. Yoga reduces cortisol levels which is a stress hormone and on-going practice can work at leveling out an ongoing mental health issue where cortisol has increased over time. Yoga helps to make participants more aware of their mind and body connection. As you move through postures and breathe noticing how you move and feel at the same time heightens. Responding to feelings relating to anxiety and registering all sensations in the body are enhanced. It then becomes ‘a mindful meditation.’

Mindfulness practices and exercises can also help with anxiety, stress, pain and illness. I read a lovely Chinese quote to explain mindfulness: Mindfulness means; ‘presence of heart’.  Compassion and mindfulness go together as the quality of mindfulness can bring feelings of gratitude and simplifies understanding ourselves.  It is a core universal emotion and derives from an innate ability to want to care for our young with presence of mind.  Mindfulness can serve to remind ourselves that we should be grateful for being here and make it a real presence of mind experience and trust this is where we ought to be in our journey.  

Spaciousness of awareness can be explained as compassion, as we open our awareness to the wider community and support each other and recognise we are all connected in some way in this world. ‘Ahimsa’ (non-violence) in yoga philosophy includes compassion and (many other religions have a similar word for being kind to all living things).

In addition, yoga poses coupled with mindfulness and breathing practices assists children to take control of their ‘monkey mind’ and learn to be still for a moment.  The John Hopkins University (USA) found in a study that, ‘mindfulness meditation reduced the symptoms of anxiety to some degree across studies’, 2014, JAMA Internal Medicine.  

Five actions for anxiety control for children and adolescents:

  • Tighten and release into different parts of their body.  Breath in as you tighten and squeeze your hands, shoulders, legs, stomach, feet and face, then breath out as you release.
  • Shake out your worries: stand on one foot and shake other leg out counting up to six or seven, then switch legs. Next, shake again alternative legs, but this time counting down from seven to one.
  • Pay attention to your thoughts and label them: ‘Is this my anxiety talking that is making my body feel the way it does?’ label those feelings then chose a strategy to deal with them.
  • Think of three things you are grateful for? In particular if teens, have trouble thinking of three good things then brainstorm with them to get them started.  Keep a journal of these each day.  Explain to children even when they are feeling worried they can still think of good things too and have more than one feeling at a time.
  • Make a jar of water and glitter, shake it up and breathe as it settles.
  • Try some calming poses: child’s pose, forward folds, inversions, Kurmasana (Turtle pose) legs up the wall pose, seated twists.  

A recent study found that adults that practiced gratitude showed more emotional support to others as a result of journaling gratitude. (University of California and University of Miami, R. Emmons Ph.D and M. McCullough).  The university of Texas Health Science Centre found in another study that, 'a growing body of research shows gratitude is truly amazing in its physical and psychosocial benefits.’

So, practice gratitude with your children for a healthy heart, mind and body and in turn the world may become a more compassionate society overall for everyone.

  • Go for a ‘mindful’ walk.  Notice five things you can see, four things you can smell and three things you can touch or notice five things in different colours.  Next time take a camera and encourage child to take photos of the things they find. You could make a little, 'mindfulness book’ of beautiful things to look at together or frame them for calming their minds in the bedroom.

We practice mindfulness in order to have contentment and calm in our lives. Positive role modelling in stress and anxiety control is so important as parents.

And.. of course don’t forget to calm your mind with some deep breathing.  Remember to also think about what is the ‘worse thing’ that could happen in any given situation and anything up from that is a good thing right?  I tell my clients, young and old, that I know this to be helpful, as I’ve dealt with anxiety taking over in my younger days with embarrassing results to say the least, but I’m still here and can actually laugh about it now.  Sometimes sharing these stories with children is a good idea too, so they know they are not alone, not abnormal and maybe have a good belly laugh too!

But on a more serious note, the rates of anxiety in young children, domestic violence involving children, suicide in teenagers, addiction to ‘screens’, and obesity in our nation, should be enough encouragement to do something and gift our children with repeated practices and strategies to support anxiety control.

Einstein: ‘Free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion’… for ourselves and others.

References:

Ford, M.  Australian suicide deaths rising among women and teenage girls, ABS figures show.  Updated, Sept. 29, 2016. Retrieved from abc.net.au on 5/01/17.

Daniel Siegal (2016)  Dalai Lama Centre for Peace and Education.  Retrieved, 4/01/17.

Professor Jon Kabat – Zinn, Founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care.

Waters, L. Sept -November 2014, ‘Yoga for eating issues: anecdotes and evidence’, Australian Yoga Life.

Article by Tracey Maclay, Yogamotorskills