The worry box: A strategy for helping children turn off worry and fear
Emotions like fear, anger and sadness can be painful, but they serve important functions for our survival. Anger can energize us to solve a problem, to stand up for ourselves and others, or to try to right an injustice. Worry and fear alert our brains and bodies about possible dangers. They also give us signals that maybe something isn't working and help us to see that we need to make a change in our behaviors or life situations. When worry and fear turn "on" they give our brains a signal or message to be aware of possible dangers or problems. Once we get the message, we can figure out how to avoid the danger or solve the problem. Then, these emotions turn "off" because we have received the message.
Sometimes, worry and fear do not turn "off" and this can cause suffering. Chronic anxiety can lead to health problems, make us more likely to get sick, and even decrease our ability to enjoy life. Our brains can get focused on the signals themselves, and not on the the message they are sending. My mentor has always said that there is no reason to keep worrying, because the continued worrying has no purpose or benefit. If the problem is something you can solve or change, then change it, because the worrying itself will not solve your problem. If it is something you can't change, then there is no need to worry because the worrying will not do anything to change your problem, and will just add to your stress.
As an occupational therapist, I try to help people lives their lives to the fullest. Many of the children I work with are dealing with chronic anxiety, worry and fear that impact their engagement in daily activities and relationships. This may be due to history of trauma, differences in processing environmental stimuli and sensory information, limited social awareness and social skills, decreased self-concept, or even a genetic predisposition to worry. I like to use hands-on multi-sensory methods for teaching kids abstract concepts and lessons that they can then apply to daily activities and situations.
I recently made a worry and fear light switch box to help give children a visual and concrete model of the process of turning worry and fear "off" when these emotions are no longer needed. I also developed a written process for helping children use these emotions to engage in coping skills and problem solving.
For this activity, the child writes down or draws something that he or she is worried about (with help as needed) and then for each worry or fear, turns on the light, processes its message, problem solves as needed, puts it in the box, and then turns off the light. For the light box in the picture, I used a simple wooden box (found at most chain craft stores) and attached a small light up switch (this one was from A.C. Moore) to the lid.
You can download the full worksheets with instructions for older children and younger children (for free!) in the therapy products section, here:
Once the child understands the concept, it can be used as a cognitive strategy in the rhythm of life (e.g., Is your worry turned on? What is the message? What can we do to solve the problem or be safe? Are you ready to turn the worry off, now?).
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them below.
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-Dr. Monica Jackman