Childhood Anxiety



If your child has a disability, there may be more situations that are frustrating, and this may also lead to feelings of anxiety.

Does your child have anxiety? It is okay to not be sure. Many children who have anxiety tend to be well behaved, and their anxiety is keeping them quiet. Some signs that you may see are excessive worry, trouble sleeping, restlessness or fatigue during the day, difficulty concentrating, and/or irritability. I know – this sounds like a typical teenager, right? I joke, but this is not normal for children.

Children who suffer from anxiety are at risk for developing depression as adolescents or adults. So intervening early will help them later in life. Anxiety is a form of stress when there is a worry about things that might happen. It can manifest physically or emotionally. When there is a true threat, this is a healthy response to activate our fight or flight reactions. But this rush of adrenaline on a regular basis is not healthy. Some physical symptoms may include dizziness, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, perspiration, and shakiness.

Everyone feels anxiety occasionally, however if this is a regular occurrence for your child, you may wish to seek professional help. Feelings may range from mild to panic, and these can be triggered by unfamiliar or challenging situations, such as changing schools or teachers, or important tests. While there is a level of anxiety that can be normal and motivating, frequent, excessive anxiety can wear on a kid. It can get overwhelming and interfere with their ability to enjoy life.

If your child has a disability, there may be more situations that are frustrating, and this may also lead to feelings of anxiety. This is not to say that you should limit the frustrating situations; learning to work through them will build a tool box to use as they get older and the challenges get harder. But recognizing the anxiety that is triggered by the mere idea of the next challenge is not helpful and working through that will be another tool for that tool box.

The good news is that exercise helps anxiety! Exercise has been shown to lead to reductions of more than 50% in the prevalence of symptoms of anxiety. Hippocrates believed that emotions came from the heart, and that is where the treatment for maladies should start. Keep your heart heal thy and you will keep your mood healthy!

There are many ways that exercise helps anxiety:
1. It provides distraction
2. It reduces muscle tension
3. It builds brain resources with the neurotransmitters we talked about
4. It teaches a different outcome. When you exercise, your heart rate and breathing get faster, which are the same symptoms that can lead to panic. When you get anxious, you can train your brain to associate these symptoms with exercise before it turns into panic.
5. It reroutes your circuits. When you have anxiety, the amygdala is passively waiting and worrying. With exercise, you are giving the amygdala a safeness with action.
6. It improves resilience. You learn that you have control over your anxiety, and feeling in control helps prevent anxiety from developing into depression.
7. It sets you free. Researchers immobilize rats to study stress. The body is made to move, and yet when you’re anxious, you tend to move less, leading to an increase in that stress. Moving through your environment, exercise, releases that stress.

By using the muscles to do a task, the tension held in those static muscles will relax. This will allow for more blood flow and more oxygen. Exercise help those rib cages expand and get more air into our lungs! It also helps get blood flowing faster through our vessels, and in turn lowers cholesterol and blood pressure. Hearts pump oxygen-rich blood to all of our limbs, our organs, our brains, everywhere! It’s bringing all those nutrients to keep everything healthy! And it bringing back all the deoxygenated blood and all the waste that needs to leave the body.

Exercise releases endorphins, which are chemicals that naturally improve mood. These will help limit perceptions of stress, as well as give a clearer view of what needs to be prioritized. It will also ward off feelings of anxiety and/or depression. Another benefit is that exercise helps improve our sleep – both our ability to fall asleep as well as get a deeper sleep – so we feel more rested when we wake up.

It is important to help your child find the healthy outlet that they most enjoy. Exercise can only help if it is actually done. Your child may like team sports, or they may like martial arts, or swimming… or all of them! Explore a variety of activities, and remember that this is not meant to add more stress or anxiety. If your child is displaying worry about a game or competition, this may not be the best activity.•

1Kristin McNealus, PT, DPT, ATP received her Masters in Physical Therapy from Boston University then went on to earn her Doctorate in Physical Therapy from MGH Institute of Health Professions. She has been a staff physical therapist on inpatient rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injuries at a number of hospitals in Southern California, as well as Director of a community adaptive gym for people with neurological injuries. She is a member of the International Network Spinal Cord Injury Physiotherapists, and has contributed to the APTA Guidelines for Exercising with a SCI. She has completed 3 marathons, and 25 triathlons, including the Ironman! SCI Total Fitness is designed to promote health and wellness for people with physical disabilities.