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Anxiety — When ‘just calm down’ doesn’t work

January 17, 2020

When someone is experiencing anxiety, especially if that someone is a child, it can be almost impossible for them to get those fear-based feelings under control. Children may avoid the fearful situation entirely and run away, refuse to participate in an activity altogether, or have recurring fearful thoughts that overwhelm their daily life. 

To outsiders, these reactions may look like behavioral problems, and the anxious child is often told to “calm down” or reassured with “you’ll be fine,” which, as most parents and grandparents know, rarely works. 

Think about it for a moment. The last time you faced an anxious situation, did the words “calm down” work for you? Even adults can resonate with this struggle. Recently, I stumbled upon some alternative ways to calm anxiety, and although these methods are directed towards children, they might be a solution for us adults who have a challenging time getting our nerves under control as well.



What is anxiety?

Anxiety is the body’s reaction to fear, and often, it’s the “what ifs,” or the thought of what could happen, and not what will most likely occur that drives it. These thoughts trigger the fight or flight response and signal the adrenal glands to pour stress hormones into the bloodstream, which causes the heart to beat faster and stronger, respiration rate to increase and blood sugar to rise. These changes help an individual fend off an attack or run away if necessary. Under normal circumstances, after the threat has passed, the body returns to a calm state in about 20-60 minutes.

The problem arises when these biological responses continue unabated, and the person who is experiencing these sensations become a perpetual “ball of nerves.” The fight or flight response then becomes its own monster, and until it subsides, no amount of logic or verbal reassurance will help until the person can step out of this fear-induced mode. 

According to Erin Leyba LCSW, Ph.D., in an article published March 2019 in Psychology Today, some of the more effective ways to halt this fear-based loop involve engaging the body to disengage the overactive mind. The following are a few methods that may help manage anxiety when verbal reassurance just won’t work. 



Call the vagus nerve into action

This nerve runs along both sides of the neck and interfaces with the parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs and digestive tract. Stimulating this pathway is thought to interrupt the signal going to the brain that indicates you’re in danger or threatened. Ways to call this nerve into action include chewing gum, gargling with water, singing, humming or breathing slowly. Slowing down the breathing rate also counteracts the tendency for rapid, shallow breaths when under stress. For children, easy ways to slow their respiration rate is to have them blow bubbles, pretend to blow out imaginary candles, or whistle a tune.



When your nervous and you know it, cross your arms

Some research suggests that moving the arms, feet and eyes across to the opposite side of the body activates both the left and right side of the brain, which helps facilitate thinking with both logic and emotion, and may disrupt the illogical thought processes that go hand in hand with anxiety. Ways to accomplish this would be marching in place while touching the right hand to the left knee, left hand to the right knee, and so on, or walking in a figure-eight pattern. 



Getting physical

The act of engaging in somewhat strenuous movements can help center the mind and calm anxiety. Carrying a heavy load such as a backpack, vacuuming, vigorous cleaning, or even pushups are ways to engage the large muscle groups, which may help redirect the anxiety pathways in the brain.



Focusing in on one thing

Sometimes it’s not the heavy work, but the tedious work that redirects the fight or flight response. Putting intricate puzzles together, needlepoint or other fine motor activities, or even concentrating on organizing a cabinet, can help put a roadblock in the continuous anxiety loop going on in the mind. 



Make an anxiety plan

Many professionals suggest having a plan of action to implement the moment anxiety kicks into overdrive to help lessen its severity. For both children and adults, this plan may include a routine incorporating any of the tips mentioned above, engaging in a specific activity that diverts attention such as doodling with pen and paper or taking a brisk walk.



Hindsight is always 20/20

When anxiety is at its peak and fear is making “mountains out of molehills,” both kids and adults see only the worst-case scenario happening, which most often never occurs. When the anxiety over an event or situation finally subsides, it can be beneficial to analyze what happened by asking questions like:

• Did the worst-case scenario that fueled my anxiety actually occur?

• Was the worrisome event/activity enjoyable once I participated?

• What technique helped calm me when the anxiety was at its worst?

This analysis may give insight to anxiety patterns and give a clearer picture of the underlying fear-based thought processes that need to be addressed.

When living in the moment is impossible, and fear of the unknown future has taken center stage, both children and adults find very little respite in the words, “just calm down.” Having more in-depth techniques that get to the root of anxiety builds the necessary skills to cope, and hopefully, calm the mind when molehills become mountains, and the “what ifs” take on a life of their own.

Kimberly Drake can be reached at [email protected].

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