Through the conversations with parents all around Europe—during the book launch—I realised that one concern is common no matter what country we live in: what to do when a child is highly anxious or experiences acute stress and is not able to learn, participate in activities or even play for a few minutes?
Of course, parents express this differently, but you may actually resonate with many of their concerns. Here are some of the most common ones:
“We arrive at school and our child, initially very excited, suddenly becomes too worried to walk through the door. What can we do?”
“Our girl refuses to get out of the car when she doesn’t know anyone at a new activity. How can we overcome this?”
“Our daughter loves dancing, but she feels nauseous about performing on stage. How can we help?”
“Our boy feels nauseous every time he has to take a test or present a project at school. Is there anything we can do?”
We know from research that some kids experience anxiety more than others. About 15-20% of children are born with a more anxious temperament because the amygdala part of their brain is more reactive to novel stimuli from the start. Feeling nauseous or crying are not the only symptoms experienced. Anxious children may scream, shake, run away, or be especially quiet, act silly, hide, cling, or sometimes even act out to avoid a stressful environment or event.
When the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated—triggering the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, which increases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate—there is no room for learning or even playing. At times, we as parents make the mistake of trying to reason with kids or talk them out of their fears. We may say things like “calm down” or “try to be brave”.
However, brain research suggests that it’s almost impossible for children to think with logic or control their behaviour until they step out of fight or flight or freeze mode.
My number one, science-based technique to gently help my child calm down, regain a sense of safety, and manage his anxiety has a strange name. I call it “the secret strings”. But in more scientific words, the secret is stimulating the vagus nerve.
Before you google it, imagine that we have something like a set of strings under our skin that we can internally press to calm us down. Or think of it like a musical instrument with strings to pluck. Now imagine that during a stressful moment, instead of asking the child to calm down, we ask her/him to deeply breathe in and breathe out. Like magic, deep breathing can immediately relax the body. It stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs from the neck to the abdomen and is in charge of turning off our “fight or flight” reflex. Also, according to a recent Harvard Health blog post, stimulating the vagus nerve activates the body’s natural relaxation response, reducing the heart rate and blood pressure.
Now take a look at the graphic below and maybe share it with your child. The vagus nerve is a squiggly, shaggy, branching nerve connecting most of the major organs between the brain and colon, like a system of roots or strings. It is the longest nerve in the body, and it technically comes as a pair of two vagus nerves: one for the right side of the body and one for the left.
You can explain to your child that during moments of high stress or anxiety, if we breathe in slowly, the sensory nodes in our lungs send information up through the vagus nerve and into the brain, and when we breathe out, the brain sends information back down through the vagus nerve to slow down or speed up the heart. And so, like carefully playing an instrument with strings, we can control our body’s response.
Neuroscientists also say that the ideal and most calming way to breathe is to take six breaths a minute: five seconds in, five seconds out. If you do meditation, you’ve probably noticed that this style of slow breathing is also what practitioners naturally lapse into during meditation with mantra.
Next time your child becomes too worried to walk through the door of a classroom or feels nauseous about performing on stage or taking a test, try the secret strings exercise to calm children down: breathing six times a minute—five seconds in, five seconds out. The human body is like a musical instrument sometimes, and it can produce beautiful music with the control of the mind.
Other ways to stimulate the vagus nerve include: chewing gum, singing or humming, eating a piece of dark chocolate (which is also a parasympathetic regulator), smelling flowers, breathing near a candle without blowing it out, practicing tummy breathing, or gargling with regular water.
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