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Promoting Better Sleep Habits With an Anxious Child

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By Laura Arrick, LCSW, Courier & Press, January 16, 2018 –

Child:  “I can’t shut my brain off.”

Parent:  “But you have to get to sleep.  Quit stalling.  You have school tomorrow, so shut your eyes.”

In households with an anxious child this can be a common bedtime conversation.

There are many forms of anxiety, but one shared characteristic is overwhelming thoughts. These thoughts often start out as rational worries and fears but over time can become irrational and all-consuming.  An anxious brain has difficulty letting go and moving on from these thoughts, and nighttime can be one of the most challenging times.

To promote optimal health, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that children ages 6 – 12 get 9 – 12 hours of sleep and teenagers ages 13 – 18 get 8 – 10 hours of sleep each night.  Following these guidelines on a regular basis leads to improved attention, behavior, learning, memory, emotional regulation, quality of life, and improved mental and physical health.

The typical reasons children are not getting enough sleep include phone or computer usage, video games, homework, jobs, extra-curricular activities, etc.  These things can usually be managed with some parental guidelines.  Anxiety is less obvious and harder for a parent to help with, often leaving both the parent and the child at a loss.

Here are some strategies to think about to help your child manage their anxiety and still get the right amount of sleep each night.

  • Establish a “before bed” routine. Give your child at least 30 minutes before bedtime to wind down. This means turning off all electronics and phones and spending some time getting ready for sleep.  It could include reading a book in a quiet room, taking a bath or shower, listening to music in a dim space, or journaling.  Work with your child on what this might look like for them.  This is a proactive way to set them up for success before they hit the pillow.
  • Have white noise in the room. There are plenty of options that are quiet but effective at drowning out the thoughts in your brain, including a fan, music, sound machine, or an app on your phone.
  • As a general rule try and help children avoid caffeine and snacks before bed. Often the snacks chosen are high in sugar, which does not help the body and mind wind down. Snacks that promote sleep may include bananas, oatmeal, yogurt, cheese with whole grain crackers or bread, or a glass of milk. These all have natural components that promote sleepiness.
  • Have your child keep a journal. Encourage them to spend time reflecting on their day and writing down all the worries and fears they have bottled up. Getting it out of their head and on paper can relieve some of the tension they are carrying to bed.
  • Don’t be afraid to allow them to get up and do something different for a short period of time. If you find they are still struggling after tossing and turning for 30 minutes, let them get up and do something relaxing and calming. They may be swirling those overwhelming thoughts in their head and can’t break the cycle just lying there.

Anxious children can get a good night’s sleep; you just have to find what works for your child. Hopefully some of the suggestions above will help them leave their worries behind before their head hits the pillow.

9 Tips to Celebrate the Holidays With Less Stress

By Alice Munson, MSW, Courier & Press, Nov. 28, 2017 –

It seems that before the new school supplies have been broken in and the Halloween costumes are put away for the next season, Thanksgiving and Christmas are upon us.  The demands of the holidays can sometimes override the inherent joy of the season, allowing stress to take over.

Here are some tips to help reduce stress and make the upcoming holidays more enjoyable:

  • Put first things first. says of Dr. Redford Williams, director of Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University, “The holidays are supposed to be about kindness and generosity, and people most often neglect extending these courtesies to those who need them most – themselves.”
  • Remember the airlines’ admonition, “In the event of loss of cabin pressure, adults should put on their oxygen masks first, then put one on a child.”  As parents, this may sound counter-intuitive, but let’s face it, if you’re not breathing you can’t help anyone else.  Healthy self-care allows us to handle those bumps in the road that are inevitable for us all.
  • Set a realistic budget.  The cost of food and gifts seems to have grown faster than Jack’s proverbial beanstalk. Decide how much you can spend and stick to it.
  • Refrain from trying to buy the happiness of others, especially children.  Those same children may try to convince you otherwise, but is that the message you want to instill in them?
  • You may also want to consider a donation to the charity of your choice, your church, or a school.  Large families may opt for a gift exchange.  Just decide what works best for your family. Overspending during the holidays could result in a post-holiday financial crisis – not a stress-free way to start the New Year.
  • Accept help.  This is not a time to “out-Martha” Martha Stewart. Remember, Martha has lots of help!  The pursuit of perfection can put a damper on anyone’s holiday.  If Aunt Jane wants to contribute her famous horseradish-chocolate chip Jell-O mold to Thanksgiving dinner, accept graciously.  It may not be what you had planned, but it will make her feel appreciated and valued. Isn’t that what we would all like?  All family members can help with shopping and cleaning according to their age and abilities.
  • Just say no.  Avoid over-committing your time when you know you are over-scheduled.  Not speaking up can cause you to feel resentful, overwhelmed, and out of sorts.  You may think, “They should know how busy I am!”  No one can discern our wishes or read our minds.  And no one can participate in every project, no matter how worthy.  Just choose what you can reasonably accomplish.
  • Give yourself a time-out.  According to the Mayo Clinic, “Finding something that reduces stress by clearing your mind and slowing your breathing helps restore your inner calm.”  Fifteen minutes without the distractions of family, friends, and electronic devices may be enough to refresh and allow you to handle the next task at hand.
  • Remain open to the joy of the season.  The first snowfall, the innocence of a kindergarten Christmas pageant, the gathering of family and friends around the Thanksgiving table, or the sweet sounds of a church choir….all of these and more are available to enjoy if we allow it.  In the words of those accidental philosophers, the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you find you get what you need.”  Peace and joy are gifts of the season, freely given.

Dealing With Anxiety

By Amber Russell, Courier & Press, Oct. 3, 2017 –

Thump, Thump, Thump.  Everything feels like it’s going in slow motion.  All I can hear is my heart beating, which feels like it is going to beat right out of my chest.

I can’t breathe.  I can’t think. I’m starting to sweat.  Thoughts begin swirling in my head.  “It is so crowded.”  “Everyone is looking at me.”  “I am in the way.”  “I am taking too long.”  Tears start to well up in my eyes as I think, “Please don’t let me see anyone I know.”

Sound familiar?  This is how I feel sometimes in a crowd or even at the grocery store.  Forty million adults (18 percent of the population) in the U.S. suffer from some form of anxiety disorder.

I am very familiar with anxiety and what helps me cope.  What works for me, however, might not work for someone else experiencing similar symptoms.

There isn’t one single coping mechanism that will magically make your symptoms go away, but there are lots of things aside from medication and therapy you can try.  To get started you may want to try talking with someone you trust, focusing on things you can control, finding a place you feel comfortable and safe, and doing something physical such as going for a walk.

Here are a few other suggestions to try when symptoms surface:

1. Know what triggers your anxiety.  Is it work, school, crowded places, a specific person? Do you feel overwhelmed or something else more specific?  What are your symptoms?  They may include racing heart, sweating, trembling, nervousness, rapid breathing, constant worrying, restless sleep, inability to focus, intense fear or embarrassment.

Keep a journal to track when you have panic attacks or strong symptoms.  Note the date, time, what was going on at the time of the attack, what you were thinking about beforehand, how long the symptoms lasted, and what made them go away.  Once you have more information about symptoms and causes, the anxiety is easier to control.  I get very anxious in crowds, especially while shopping.  From tracking triggers and symptoms I know that while I obviously can’t avoid shopping altogether, I should not shop on super busy Sunday afternoons.

2. Try deep breathing.  When we are stressed, our breathing becomes shallow.  We feel like we can’t breathe, so we try to breathe fast by taking in quick short breaths through the mouth.  This can actually cause hyperventilation.  Try the 4-7-8 method instead:

  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of 4.
  • Hold breath for a mental count of 7.
  • Exhale completely and slowly through your mouth, making a swoosh sound to a mental count of

Repeat these three steps at least 2 times.  It may seem awkward at first, but it really helps to focus on breathing.  Slow it down, breathe in through the nose, hold the breath, and slowly exhale through your mouth.

3. Try grounding techniques, which help put your mind in the “here and now” instead of focusing on how stressed and anxious you are.  The more you focus on how stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed you are, the more stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed you become.  Try the 5-4-3-2-1 game.  Look around the room and mentally describe 5 things (poster, clock, lamp, etc).  Name 4 things you can feel (hair touching your shoulders, the breeze of a fan).  Name 3 things you can hear (the air conditioning unit, the click of a pen).  Name 2 things you can smell or smells that you like.  Name 1 good quality about yourself. Repeat with different items if needed.

If you or your child suffers from an anxiety disorder, take steps to manage it.  Start with the coping techniques mentioned above, and seek professional help if anxiety is interfering with daily life.