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Art Therapy for kids with Anxiety

Updated: Mar 6, 2019

It seems that almost every time I meet a parent of a young child or adolescent, within a few minutes of our conversation, I hear these words; “My son/daughter has anxiety and I don’t know what to do”. I’ve even heard anxiety now be referred to as an epidemic. As the parent of a 13-year-old, I too can see in my child when signs of this start to surface.

To understand why this is, it’s important that we first understand what it is. Basically, anxiety is low-level chronic fear. It’s likely that you’ve heard the term, “the fight or flight response”. You may have also heard this biochemical reaction be referred to as the 3 F’s; being “fight, flight or freeze”. And you probably know that our bodies respond to anxious thoughts or dangerous situations by emitting stress hormones. When confronted with a threat (even if only perceived as such) our internal alarms go off. Our bodies are naturally designed to protect us. Our brains send the signal, “Threat!” and our bodies go into Jack Reacher defense mode by shooting adrenaline and hormones into our bloodstream. This reaction causes us to be stronger and faster than we normally are.

Picture yourself at the end of a long stressful week. It’s Friday night and your younger child has finally settled down for the night. Your firstborn, who’s now an adolescent, is at her friend’s house for a sleepover. Your week was non-stop, over scheduled, overworked and difficult. You are exhausted. It’s October, wet and cold, and all you can think about is getting yourself into a cozy ball on the couch in front of the fire. You slip into your most comfortable fleece sweatpants and hoodie, make yourself a cup of tea, or pour yourself a glass of wine, grab the book you’ve been wanting to read, and finally, finally, finally, you can relax. Each remaining drop of energy has now been used to help form your body to become one with the cushions holding you up.

At this point, if you need to use the washroom, it will have to wait until morning! Then, the phone rings. You sigh, but a second later your mommy voice tells you to see who it is. Isn’t that usually the case when one of our kids is not under our roof? It’s the call you never want to receive. All you hear from the person on the other end is, “There’s been an accident.” With lightning speed, you’re off the couch, your body has raised your blood sugar, pulse, heart rate, and blood pressure. Your digestive system has slowed down, your breathing is shallow, and your pupils are dilated.

Now try and imagine what would happen if you stayed in this state? If you didn’t find out what happened to your child and you needed to just sit still. When we are in a state of anxiety or fear, no matter what the degree or the cause, our bodies release these hormones and prepare us for the threat. Our danger alarms go off. And while these changes in our bodies prepare us to take fast action, we usually don’t take it, so our hormones aren’t able to dispense. It’s in the action that these chemicals get released.

On average, while the anxiety for our children may not be caused by life-threatening events, it’s still producing the same biochemical responses. Their internal alarms are still going off. And while they’re not able to physically fight, or flight, their bodies are stewing, spinning, and cascading with unreleased physical energy compounded by their internal emotional alarms not being redirected or calmed. This alarm may also manifest itself as tension or agitation.

There are common signs of anxiety which are likely familiar to you. Some of these signs may include: A sense that something is wrong or something bad is going to happen. Persistent feelings of nervousness or tension. Feeling unsafe. Unexplained panic. Nightmares. Physical aches, muscle spasms, tics. You may also be familiar with behaviours that are presented to reduce anxiety, such as oral activities (nail biting, eating, sucking). Rocking, stroking, twirling hair, playing with worry beads and fidget tools, finger tapping, leg shaking, and other rhythmic movements. Some may start to seek comfort through video games, social media and over-attachment to electronic devices. Drug and alcohol and sexual conduct may also become methods used to reduce anxiety.

The question of ‘what should I do for my child with anxiety’ can feel like a daunting one. But rest assured, you are not alone. There are very effective steps we can take. Kids are very responsive, especially when presented with opportunities that feel right for them personally.

I commend you on not only recognizing that this is, or may be, an issue for your child and your family, and I praise you for doing all that you can to help the situation.

There are different theories on why this is happening at disturbing rates, with not only our children but within society in general. Some of those theories comprise of the impact of things like constant electronic device usage and social media is having on human development. Including an understanding of our need, as humans, for safe, secure attachment especially during our developmental years. There’s also the impact of our very busy, competitive, highly demanding, stress-inducing lives.

In general, there are some things you want to focus on such as: Do not attempt to talk your child out of it or minimalize their feelings. Although your intentions are good, you run the risk of them thinking there is something wrong with them. Rather than saying, “Don’t worry about it” or “You’re making something out of nothing”, they need to know that they’re not alone and that you understand. They need reassurance that this is not only a normal human reaction but one that is there to help us, not harm us. Once they understand how their body works and why, they will be in a better position to regulate themselves, their emotions and behaviours.

We are all individuals and we each have the innate ability and unlimited potential to overcome the most difficult of adversities. Let your child know that this is a normal human occurrence that they, and you together, cannot only manage but can become stronger because of it. This is an opportunity for growth and understanding.

Some people find it helpful to seek support and guidance through individual, family or group counselling. Some effective therapies include the use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Mindfulness, and Art Therapy. Depending upon the age and personal disposition, some people also find play therapy and group sessions helpful.

The use of CBT helps people to learn techniques to understand and control their anxieties, remain calm, and develop positive self-images. In family therapy, members can come to recognize and appreciate what steps they can take to help each other build a strong bond and family unit that works well together, which in turn creates more independent and self-assured individuals.

Some individuals find Art Therapy very soothing, calming and an effective way to not only get in touch with their inner self but to heal from trauma, control anxiety, recover from issues surrounding things like depression and anger.

In recent years, we’ve all seen magazine racks and bookshelves at the local stores filled with 'Art Therapy' books. Where one can doodle or colour in repetitive patterns to help calm their minds. These have certainly brought attention to the benefits of art. While these serve a purpose and do act as a type of distraction, they are not able to uncover or treat any serious issues that may be causing the anxiety or trauma.

Some people find group sessions very beneficial. Why does Group Art Therapy work? There is a curative potential of Art Therapy Groups. While art making on its own can be fulfilling, therapeutic, and healing; art making within a group offers special qualities. "Some curative factors found in groups include:

Instilling hope. Art therapy with groups involves being part of a supportive community. The experience of group support and sharing naturally instills hope, particularly when group members relate positive experiences of overcoming or solving problems.

Interaction. Groups provide an opportunity for social interaction. More importantly, groups provide social support, which has been connected to health and well-being. Art making within a group connects group members with each other through group projects and/or through the sharing of art made during the session.

Universality. Groups show participants that others have similar problems, worries, and fears and that people’s experiences are more similar than different. While experiences may be universal, images people create may carry a universal meaning, but in a very personal way. Sharing common symbols and/or experiences is an important function of an art therapy group and reduces isolation through communication and exchange of mutual concerns.

Catharsis. Group art therapy can be particularly helpful in catharsis and expression of painful feelings or experiences. Catharsis within a supportive group is reported to be helpful in overcoming distressful or traumatic events and in sharing anxieties, fears, depression and other emotions.

Altruism. Group therapy emphasizes helping one another through difficult times. This sense of altruism can be a healing factor for the person who gives help as well as for the one who receives it. Art therapy groups encourage support between group members by offering creative activities through which people can interact in positive and helpful ways." (Cathy A. Malchiodi)

In summary, please take from this, that you are not alone. Anxiety is very treatable and manageable. I encourage you to continue to research and take steps to help yourself and/or your children maintain developing, becoming and remaining self-assured, confident, healthy individuals and family units.

(This article was originally published by online parenting magazine, YoyoMama, Nov. 2018)

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