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The transition to back to school is always a little tricky, even for children who don’t deal with anxiety daily. Let’s face it, that nervous sensation is normal:  the butterflies in the stomach, the sweaty palms, the shaky voice, and the desire to curl up inside a shell are all par for the course. It’s all part of being human. Anxiety, after all, is simply a buildup of adrenaline that needs to get out of the body somehow, but can’t.

Channeling Your Anxiety
The solution to that shaky, jittery, spinning out of control feeling was once explained to me like this: When you are feeling panicked or jittery, or like you’re losing control and you’re overwhelmed, don’t fear those feelings. Instead, think of those feelings as energy – energy that is pushing your body forward to bigger and better things. While this is happening, think about the energy as something that needs to be released and do just that: Walk out that energy, sing out that energy or just simply breathe it out.

Whatever you do to release that feeling, know that it is only your body’s way of letting you know that you are moving forward. Instead of challenging it, channel it. You may be surprised with the outcome.

“What Ifs”
Most children can have these anxious feelings and proceed forward like nothing ever happened. For others, those thoughts are the beginning of a very fast spinning cycle of worry, fear and apprehension – so much so that it can stop them in their tracks. In our house we call them the “what ifs”. These seemingly harmless “what ifs” have a very real impact on a child’s life. Sure, there are lots of good and positive “what ifs”, however the bad “what ifs”can easily take control and overwhelm your child.

The Human Brain and Anxiety
Here are some interesting facts about the brain:

  • The human brain produces an estimated 70,000 thoughts on an average day.
  • The energy used by the brain is enough to light a 25-watt bulb.

When we think about just how amazing our brain is and how much work it does on a daily basis, it’s easy to see how thoughts can get away from you. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “your imagination is running wild.” You know – the process where you begin to question one thing, and like a cascade, a million other negative “what if’s” come streaming in. For kids struggling with anxiety that cascade may sound like this:

  • What if they don’t like me?
  • What if I trip and look stupid?
  • What if I don’t know the answer?
  • What if I get sick?
  • What if I can’t breathe?
  • What if I’m not good enough?

A “What If” Chart
There is something that can help with those “what if” moments and it’s a “what if” chart. This is a great activity for parents and children to do together to help collaboratively retrain the brain to focus on the positives instead of the negatives.

Tools:

  • Piece of paper
  • Markers/crayons/pencil crayons
  • Imagination

Directions:
Sit down with your child in a quiet place–one that allows for privacy. You just never know what thoughts might pop into your child’s head, and sometimes those thoughts are very personal and somewhat embarrassing for your child to be disclosing.

  1. Have your child do the printing if they are old enough and their penmanship is legible.
  2. Pick an environment or event to which your child feels he/she needs some extra support, say for example a “My School what ifs” or “My Camping what ifs”.
  3. Write at the top of the page “My what ifs”.
  4. In one colour print the first “what if”. For example: “What if I feel like I’m going to be sick in class?”
  5. In a second colour print the positive response or problem solving idea. For example, “I will ask the teacher if I can go for a walk.” Do this the whole way through interchanging one colour for the other.

Once you go through a list (try not to have more than five or six “what ifs”, as too many can be overwhelming) and your child is satisfied with the list, don’t just put it in drawer.

  • Have it out for them to see, in order to reinforce all of the positive thoughts they have just established.
  • You could even put the items on cue cards, with the “what if”written on one side and the positive thought or idea appearing on the opposite side.

The best way to alleviate the impact of all of these scary thoughts is to give them the space to exist and not try to push them aside.  There is a lot to be said for the correlation between writing things out and the brain accepting ideas and believing them as truth.  Just imagine – what if this activity works?

References
Is Your Brain Stimulated? Penn State Hershey, Milton S. Hershey Medical Clinic. <http://pennstatehershey.org/web/guest/home/news/-/newsevents/News/10100/2838185>