Soothing Anxious Kids
Natural Remedies Restore Calm
by Marlaina Donato
Kids and teens have always had plenty to be stressed about, such as family finances, parental bickering, the birth of a sibling and other challenges on the home front. Then there are the age-old tensions of taking school exams and squabbles with friends and other classmates.
Yet with the proliferation of social media and cyber-bullying, kids face obstacles other generations did not, and chronic juvenile anxiety has become a pervasive mental health issue. However, there are a number of integrative approaches that can help heal youthful psyches. “I encourage kids and parents to focus on skills, versus pills,” says Lawrence Rosen, M.D., founder of The Whole Child Center, in Oradell, New Jersey.“There are several safe and cost-effective natural options for anxiety.”
Relaxing and engaging the imagination are necessary for healthy brain development and offsetting stress. Downtime in general and specifically limiting screen time is paramount. “Electronic devices can be very overstimulating and can cause or exacerbate anxiety,” says Kristi Kiel, ND, Ph.D.,of Lake Superior Natural Health, in Ashland, Wisconsin. “There should be at least a one-to-one balance of screen time and outside play.
Mindful activities and creative outlets like art, music and dance in a no-pressure environment help kids get out of “fight-or-flight” mode. “Both parents and kids need to have go-to coping skills,” says Rosen. “Meditation and yoga are safe and work very well.” Kids need to feel a sense of control over their bodies, he adds, and mindful breathing techniques can make a significant difference in how they handle stress.
So can a regular dose of the great outdoors. Exercise helps boost serotonin levels, which decreases anxiety. Timothy DiGiacomo, Psy.D.,clinical director of the Mountain Valley Treatment Center, in Plainfield, New Hampshire, emphasizes the value of getting outside. “Connection to nature, calmness and present-moment awareness are all benefits.”
Sleep and Diet Triggers
Before parents seek any treatment for their child’s anxiety, Kiel stresses the importance of looking at the basics.“When children don’t get enough sleep, their bodies don’t respond as well to stressful situations. School-age children need 10 to12 hours of sleep per night, and teenagers should be getting nine to 10 hours.” Sensitivity to certain foods such as gluten or dairy is also something to consider, says Kiel.
Rosen concurs. “Artificial dyes and sweeteners can negatively impact mood and focus. More of an issue, though, is nutritional imbalance.” Skipping breakfast or eating mostly carbs can feed anxiety, he notes. “The brain relies on sustainable fuel—a blend of lean proteins, healthy fats—and in some cases, gluten-free, whole grain carbs.”
Eating foods high in healthy fat and protein can help minimize blood sugar fluctuations that can trigger symptoms of anxiety in kids. Probiotics and/or cultured and fermented foods can help gut health and promote equilibrium. Omega-3 fats from fish or vegetarian sources are also important additions.
Supplements dosed appropriately for children and teenagers are safe and can offer huge benefits. “Magnesium is good for relaxation, especially anxiety accompanied by muscle tension. B-complex vitamins are also important because they are depleted by stress and help the body to handle stress,” says Kiel. Her herbal recommendations include skullcap, hops and milky oat as teas or glycerin-based extracts. “For teenagers, in addition to these three gentle herbs, I recommend kava kava, which can have a significant calming effect without drowsiness.”
Research by Stephen Porges, Ph.D., a professor at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, addresses the importance of the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain through the face and thorax to the abdomen. His polyvagal theory suggests the interconnectedness of emotions, mind and body in both children and adults.
This nerve affects all major organs and plays a critical role in anxiety and inflammation. Mindful breathing and using the vocal chords, especially singing, stimulates the vagus nerve and nourishes well-being. Splashing the face with cold water during times of stress also tones this nerve and reduces acute anxiety.
DiGiacomo emphasizes that different natural therapies offer hope even for severe cases, advising, “It’s important to know that anxiety is highly treatable.”
Marlaina Donato is the author of Multidimensional Aromatherapy. Connect at MarlainaDonato.com.