Understanding And Calming The Anxious Mind by Carly Alleway, Psychologist

Ilze GroblerMindfulness Meditation, Parenting, Psychology

Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. Research indicates that 1 in 4 people will experience anxiety at some point in their lifetime. 

What is anxiety?

Anxiety and stress often present similarly in our body. STRESS can be described as the pressure we feel from excessive demands and increased obstacles that we need to overcome in order to achieve our goals. Stress can assist us to focus our attention and behaviour in a way that helps us to overcome these obstacles. 

ANXIETY on the other hand, can feel very similar in the body however the symptoms of anxiety can be there long before and long after an actual trigger or event. The perception of a threat activates the fight/flight/freeze response in the body. Symptoms of anxiety often get in the way of us moving toward the things that matter to us. 

Three main elements of anxiety

  1. Emotion driven thoughts (i.e predicting failure and worst-case scenarios)
  2. Physical sensations (i.e increased heart rate, nausea, dry mouth)
  3. Emotion driven behaviours (i.e avoiding and running away)

Signs and symptoms of anxiety include: 

  • release of adrenalin 
  • rapid heart rate 
  • shortness of breath
  • sweating
  • dizziness
  • muscle tension
  • difficulties sleeping
  • poor appetite
  • nausea or “butterflies” in stomach
  • dry mouth

Dan Siegal’s hand model of the brain explains how big emotions can ‘flip the lid’ on the thinking part of our brain (prefrontal cortex), causing us to respond in ways that we later regret or feel is unhelpful. Dan Siegal describes a child’s brain like a 2-storey house that is fully furnished downstairs (emotion centre of the brain) and still under construction on the top level (prefrontal cortex). When a child experiences the intense physical symptoms of anxiety as described above, this limits their access to their thinking part of the brain that would normally assist them with effective problem solving. Parents play a crucial role in supporting children to build and reinforce connections between the upstairs and downstairs parts of the brain so that these pathways can become more integrated. With practice and repetition, parents can step into role model and support children to develop new, helpful ways of responding to stress and anxiety and reengage the prefrontal cortex to moderate the fight/flight/freeze response.  

Supporting children to identify early warning signs and triggers

Helping our children to identify their body cues and triggers for anxiety will allow them to develop a mindful awareness of their body and to better understand when to intervene with helpful coping strategies before their ‘thinking brain’ is disengaged. This awareness will also assist them to know when it is important to seek help from their supports. 

Useful tips for parents 

  1. Breathing co-regulation

Children learn self-regulation skills through co-regulation with their caregivers first. When a parent comes alongside a child and offers connection, this regulates the nervous system and reduces anxiety and stress. 

A simple exercise that parents can encourage their child to do with them is to regulate their breathing. Encourage your child to slow down their breathing when they are distressed by blowing bubbles with you or suggest breathing deeply together following your count. Diaphragmatic breathing can help your child to re-engage their ‘thinking brain’ to assist them to engage in problem solving more effectively later. 

2. Mindfulness

Mindfulness in another useful strategy. Mindfulness is the process of bringing awareness to your experience as opposed to being “caught up” in your thoughts. There is substantial research suggesting that mindfulness can reduce anxiety symptoms by redirecting the focus of one’s attention away from rumination and worry to focus one’s attention on the experience of the present moment. 

A simple mindfulness technique that parents can encourage their children to practice is called grounding. Gently instruct your child to sit with you and bring their attention to their senses. Using a calm voice, ask them to identify the following: 

  • 5 things they can SEE
  • 4 things they can HEAR
  • 3 things they can FEEL
  • 2 things they can SMELL
  • 1 thing they can TASTE

3. Unhooking from unhelpful thoughts

Helping your child to create a sense of distance between themselves and their thoughts can also be useful in managing anxiety symptoms. Parents can support their child to do this by encouraging them to notice and name their thoughts. Describe for them that thoughts are like clouds in the sky that come and go. Parents can assist their child to create a sense of distance between themselves and their thoughts through the use of humour. Have them be playful and repeat their thoughts using a funny voice or sing it to a familiar tune. Simply saying “I’m noticing I’m having the thought…” can also have the same effect. 

Helpful resources for parents: 

Hey Warrior – By Karen Young (suitable for children 5-12+ years old)

The Whole Brain Child – By Daniel Siegal and Tina Payne Bryson (A guide for parents of children 0-12 years old)

Raising a Secure Child – By Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper and Bert Powell with Christine Benton. 




Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 

Hoffman, K., Cooper, G. and Powell, B. (2017). Raising a secure child. New York: The Guilford Press

Siegal, D.J. and Bryson, T.P. (2012). The whole brain child. New York: Random House. 

Siegel, D.J., & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out. New York: Penguin

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