Practical strategies to help adults and kids process fear, anxiety and anger by building health-giving habits
Over the years, and especially recently, I have read many blog posts, articles, and helpful tips about coping with anxiety and anger. There are many wonderful and beneficial therapies and interventions available for working through difficult emotions, and most are provided by mental health professionals such as counselors and psychologists.
As an occupational therapist (OT), I take a somewhat different perspective to processing emotions; the profession of OT started out in mental health hospitals in the late 1800's and was initially referred to as habit training. Early OT's recognized the therapeutic value and restorative impact of building and practicing healthy habits on rehabilitation, recovery, and mental and physical wellbeing. Today, we still view one's roles, habits and routines as a vital part of the therapeutic process, as habits shape our behaviors and responses, often without our awareness. The empirically-supported practice of mindfulness is a means to enhance awareness and attention to our habits.
And so, I decided to put together a list of practical mindfulness-based practices that adults and kids can use to build new, healthy habits for processing and responding to big, overwhelming and challenging emotions- more specifically, to fear and anger. Each of the suggestions below include practices for adults, and modifications for supporting kids to build healthy habits. Research has shown that when adults engage in the modeling of mindfulness-based practices, there are positive downstream effects to children even in the absence of direct child interventions. As with other self regulation strategies, it is beneficial to initially introduce these to children (and to ourselves) when they are in a calm and aware state so that their brains can focus on taking in new information.
1. Pause and label.
The most important thing to do in the midst of a rush of anxiety or anger is to create a habit of pausing to notice what is happening. An intentional pause can create a break in a dizzying streak of overwhelming emotions. While you pause, objectively label what you are feeling, much like you are looking out the window and commenting on the weather. FMRI studies have shown that the process of affect labeling, or simply naming an emotion, can reduce the activity in the amygdala, which is the "big scary feelings" area of the brain. So if you are feeling a wave of anxiety, take a pause and notice, this is anxiety, these are racing thoughts, these are sweaty hands, this is tightness in my chest. Older children may also be able to develop the habit of intentionally pausing during storms of anxiety or anger, and it can help to have a code word such as stop, freeze, or pause to prompt them. For younger children, you can model the process of pausing by.....pausing yourself. When my youngest son is overwhelmed with a big feeling I often just sit right on the floor and say, "let's stop for a second". Give the child time to pause without having to process language, questions or reprimands.
2. Assess the situation- Is it a real threat? Is it a fly or a snake?
It is important to remember that fear and anger are very important emotions and both alert us to protect ourselves and others- to flee, to fight, to freeze, to react to and correct injustice or atrocity. Sometimes these emotions signal real fires and cause for alarm, but sometimes they are false alarms caused by hormones or fluctuations in physiology, or triggered by past fires or imagined future fires. The next healthy habit after pausing is to assess the situation- if it is a threat such as a heart attack or an intruder, we must act accordingly. If it is not a real threat, we can engage in a healthy habit to process the energy and thoughts the emotion has ignited. Some people are genetically predisposed to be more sensitive to threats. Indeed, studies have shown that primates that are more anxious often live on the outskirts of a tribe, and they are vital to the survival of a group because they are able to alert the group to danger. People who tend to be emotionally sensitive are also prone to thinking about these emotions and creating stories that amplify the emotions. For example, one early morning I was sitting down to meditate, and about 10 minutes in I noticed a strange vibrating sound coming from the window area behind the couch. My mind initially jumped to the thought, That sounds like a snake...could a snake be in here, what if a snake got into the house?! I returned to my breathing but heard it again, louder, and decided to check. I cautiously approached and found the source of the sound- it was a fly trapped behing the window blinds, and the vibration of its wings was being amplified to sound like a hiss. I realized that I had developed a habit to assume that the most dangerous option was reality. I have since developed a theory that people can be either fly people or snake people, and that this habit and tendency can be shaped by genes, trauma, and challenging times such as living in a pandemic. But to get back to this practice- the healthy habit we can use in this situation is to assess whether a big emotion is triggering a real threat, or a perceived threat.
For kids, you can help them to assess the level of threat and if there is not an emergency, you can provide quiet reassurance, such as you are safe, I am here for you, I can help you.
3. Take an inventory of the thoughts, emotions, and body sensations that are occurring in the moment.
The habit of objectively noticing exactly what you are experiencing can help you to decide the type of healthy response to choose. For adults, this means taking inventory of what is going on with your thoughts, your spectrum of emotions, and your body sensations. For children, pictures and visuals can be helpful. Below are two tools that are part of the OpenMind program. They are designed to allow one to take a quick objective look at what is happening both during intense emotional states, or at regular times throughout the day. This intentional noticing is a healthy habit that builds objective awareness and can decrease our tendency to get caught up in thoughts, stories and panic. To use the first form, simply check off which of the areas you are experiencing. The second form can be used to support kids to identify which feelings they are feeling and how big they are. (In training, I refer to these forms as the check yo self before you wreck yo self forms because I have been heavily influenced by 90's hip hop). Often after completing these forms, there is a subjective decrease in the intensity of the challenging emotion. Building a healthy habit of taking notice of thoughts, feelings and body sensations on a regular basis can help with decreasing habitual emotional reactivity that can accompany decreased awareness.
4. Remember the reasons for the emotions and the symptoms. Thank your body for the gift. Use the gift.
Intense anger, fear and anxiety can cause physical and mental symptoms that can be unpleasant, such as increased tension, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating, shaking, racing thoughts, and so on. These happen because the mind and body has detected a threat and sounded the alarm as a call to battle. But if we do not need these resources for a real threat, we are left with some unpleasant effects of that burst of energy. This is the reason why many people find it difficult to use quiet and still practices such as breathing when minds and bodies are racing. Many of us need to burn off the energy to process the emotion. We can process increased energy from fear and anger by using it. Movement activities that provide a lot of input to the large muscles, that create a calming and steady rhythm, and that allow one to feel grounded can help to spend the physiological and mental energy from big emotions. I asked some dedicated athletes from the Iron Knight Gym about their go-to exercises for processing anxiety and recieved the following fantasic suggestions: squats, running, fast walking, lunges, push ups, planks, sit-ups, and dancing. Dancing can not only provide grounding imput to the joints and muscles, but also can help to reset an unhealthy and out of control rhythm with a steady rhythm. Singing along with dancing offers the additional benefit of stimulating the vagus nerve, which is the like putting a break on the fight or flight system. Singing and dancing to the song No, no, no by Dawn Penn has gotten me through much anxiety and become a steady grounding anthem for me. Find a song that works for you, and help kids to identify their own grounding anthem.
You can also help children identify grounding moving activities that they can use when they are upset. Sprinting, jumping, holding a plank, yoga, and moving heavy toys or objects in a functional way can be a good source of release of emotional energy for kids and become healthy habits.
5. Close as many tabs as you can.
This is a cognitive strategy I use when my mind is racing. Thinking about too many things at once creates a multitasking situation, which reasearch has shown to have a negative effect on mental and physical health. In addition, it can decrease working memory and problem solving because our minds are so occupied with monitoring and engaging with all of the open windows, it cannot use information and store memories of others things that are happening in the moment. To create this habit, notice when you have multiple "tabs" open in your mind, choose to focus on one at a time, and "close" the rest of the windows. To support kids, help them to recognize the big things happening in their minds, and pick one to focus on at a time. For example, right now, many kids have a window for missing their friends constantly open in the screens of their minds. This can affect their ability to focus on school work or chores. You can help them to close the tab in their minds by processing how this feels, and brainstorming strategies to connect with friends.
6. Practice 4-6 focused breathing when you can.
There is extensive research on the benefits of focused breathing practice for calming and health benefits. The variations and options for this practice goes beyond the scope of this already very long post, so I will focus here on one healthy habit for senf-regulation. Slow, focused intentional breathing with a longer exhale can send a send a signal to our brains that we are safe and ok. For this practice, inhale for a count of 4 and exhale for a count of 6. Repeat until you feel subjectively calmer. Below is a visual you can use to help children to use this strategy by tracing the image as they breathe. It uses the grounding image of a tree to help with the pace of the breathing rhythm.
7. Practice the habit of ____ and _____ and ______.
When experiencing an intense emotion, it is human nature to focus only on that emotion. This is especially true for difficult emotions, as we are hardwired with a negativity bias to unpleasant emotions, because these emotions most often signal danger. However, this can cause an unhealthy habit of ruminating and dwelling on negative emotions and engaging in negative self talk, e.g., I am weak, I am stupid, I am failing. To create a new habit, you can practice the ___and ___ and ___ strategy. This practice pairs an experienced negative emotion with an experienced neutral or positive emotion, and finally a positive self talk statement. For example, I am feeling extreme anxiety and overwhelm AND I am feeling love for my kids and gratitude for being in a safe place for this to play out AND I am doing the best I can right now and I know this will pass.
For kids, the visual above can help with this process; even during the biggest emotional storms my kids are able to recognize the positive emotions that may be the sun hiding behind the big clouds.
In closing, remember that big emotional storms cause trees to grow. In the darkness, our roots grow deep and strong. By cultivating healthy habits, we can make sure we stay resilient and able not only to weather the storms, but to grow from them and provide shade and fruit for others.
I would love to hear about your healthy habits in the comments.
With gratitude, Ms. Monica AKA Dr. Jackman AKA Mom
Thankyou for this summary and great suggestions to help with big emotions. It’s very helpful
Very nice…thank you very much.