Submitted by Guest authour Jane OT
As I read the recent article “14 Phrases Kids Said That Were Code Words for ‘I’m Anxious“ from The Mighty, It felt familiar – like I had met every one of these responses to anxiety and not just from children.
“What’s wrong with me?”… “I’m tired.” … “Can’t we stay home?”
“I don’t feel well.”
Anxiety affects so many people and they are not all confident naming and talking about it. Some may know they are anxious but be embarrassed about telling people, for others, it may be that long-term anxiety is new to them and they haven’t really grasped that the physical symptoms are related to their anxiety.
So how does anxiety play out in real life and how can we help?
The elderly lady who has had a reduction in her mobility now feels sick when she goes in the car (but her doctors can’t find anything physically that would cause this), may not understand that her body and brain has become accustomed to less movement and so is less able to integrate vestibular stimulation with other sensory stimulation hence she feels sick now avoids leaving her chair for fear of some as yet unidentified illness but is embarrassed to say she feels scared. Her fears about illness then generate yet more anxiety symptoms e.g. Feeling sick racing heart and more, confirming that she really has got some mystery illness that the doctors are missing, so she avoids leaving her chair whenever she can. This leads to a further loss of integration between her senses as she is not moving much (vestibular) and she is not using her muscles much (proprioception) and will eventually lead to loss of function.
Or that friend who is always tired or busy when you want to go out (there might be other reasons) and cancels at the last minute. But to be honest, as a mother to a lovely but anxious young lady it is the young people who concern me most
My concern for young people is driven by the knowledge that the young brain is primed to learn (Jenson 2015)… And learn it will – either good things or less good things, so if like the elderly lady the young teen avoids activities there is a good chance that these coping strategies will become an ingrained life pattern.
So what can we do to help?
- First get to know the symptoms of anxiety there are numerous self-help books and Web pages e.g. The NHS Web site, Web MD, mind etc.
- Second help the young person to choose activities that are likely to reduce anxiety… From a sensory integration perspective, these are likely to be ones that involve heavy muscle work and muscle stretch (proprioception) and ones that make the young person think like Martial arts, dance, rock climbing gymnastics etc. Will be better than just proprioception alone. We do dance and acrobatics.
- Consider 1 to 1 tuition if they need to gain skills to catch up with their peers… But if you do this it’s good to plan to reintegrate the young person into group lessons… So that they can deal with social anxieties. We went to a group lesson and it was clear my daughter had a lot to learn so we had a year of individual lessons (and still supplement the group lessons with the occasional individual lesson). But then we went to group lessons, it took half a term but now she is enjoying doing acrobatics duets which brings me to my next point.
- Make sure the young person attends regularly and on time for a good chunk of time…..
Be prepared for ongoing anxiety and be firm that they go… My daughter frequently tells me on the way home “oh sensory mum you’re right I do feel better.“
- Try to avoid surprises… We have a wall planner for the term and all activities are written on it… And I have noticed my daughter (and I am) much calmer knowing what needs to be done and when.
- Discuss and consider professional help… Some Ayres’ Sensory Integration trained occupational therapists use other techniques in conjunction with their sensory integrative therapy, others will work alongside mental health professionals and for some people, Ayres’ Sensory Integration therapy will be enough on its own.
- You may also decide to work through a self-help book and this can be a good option… But if in doubt always consult with your GP or/and any other health professional who is working the young person.
So what about those adults… Its a little different to the young people but listening and understanding or trying to understand is a good first step. Giving them information about sensory integration and mental health issues can also be helpful. Then asking them what they want you to do and staying in touch with them even if it’s difficult. And always remember it’s never too late for someone to get help.
Reference The teenage brain by Frances Evans Jenson. L