Living in the modern world, we're witnessing more children and adults grappling with regular bouts of anxiety. Sometimes it's like waves, ebbing and flowing through our days, while other times, it feels like we're stuck in a prolonged state of unease. It's as if we're living in a perpetual sense of dread, expecting the worst to happen at any moment. Our minds get hijacked by thoughts of not being liked, people gossiping about us, and feeling utterly alone, to the point where we might even question our own existence. But understanding what's happening in our bodies, especially from a young age when our brains are still wiring themselves, can be a game-changer for long-term mental health.
Anxiety is anormal human emotion that is designed to keep us safe, it has kept our species alive and evolving for thousands of years, when a threat occurs that small internal alarm goes off and gives us the extra energy and hormones needed to survive. There are many different things that can make us feel under threat, even in the modern world – or you might say especially in the modern world. We all have our own personal triggers as well, triggers that generate those fight, flight, freeze, flop and fawn responses, experiences that have occurred in our childhoods that our body remembers and responds to when it feels like the situation we are in is similar.
Not having control, not feeling liked, feeling like there’s lots of uncertainty, when we have made a mistake, when plans suddenly change, when we feel sad, let down, guilty, angry, frustrated – all of these emotions and situations can sit underneath our ‘anxiety iceberg’ and cause us to react in certain ways. When we react in moments of anxiety, it can often be a different way then what we would respond if we had less adrenaline and cortisol running through our bodies. That’s when the thoughts get ‘fuelled’, because shame creeps in and we then want to pull away from people, or attach ourselves to those who help us to feel soothed, safe, that offer relief.
In 2024 we have a world where there is so much uncertainty, as well as so much to compare to. Couple that with living in a society that uses it’s cognitive brain more than ever, and less and less time in our sensory then you can see why numbers of children being diagnosed or presenting with anxiety disorders has risen. Systems surrounding the children haven’t adapted as fast as the modern world meaning that there is less to buffer this, what we need to thrive, how our brains develop hasn’t changed but how we live, work, sleep and play most definitely has. Knowing where the gaps are means that we adapt systems and create opportunity to make up for those gaps – bridge them you might say 😉
There's a healthy dose of anxiety that can actually propel us forward – think prepping for a test or a big presentation. The trouble starts when we begin to fear that feeling itself, spiralling into thoughts of failure, suffocation, or not measuring up. When we start to fear the emotion itself, the physical feelings it generates, we start to have louder and more regular thoughts of, 'what if I fail, what if I can’t breathe, what if I let people down, what if I’m not good enough…what if, what if, what if…'.
So, what can we do? How can we support the next generation of children to understand their anxiety responses better, to be less afraid, and more capable of listening to them? How can we help them capture their thoughts without resorting to experiential avoidance? How do we support children in developing authentic emotional resilience?
In truth, there isn't a one-size-fits-all response. Just as we all have our own experiences and anxiety triggers, we also possess unique learning styles and methods of feeling safe and engaged in therapeutic interventions. Therefore, we should approach this question while considering everyone's individual needs and developmental stages. What we do know is that if we can assist children on their emotional literacy journey, we can help improve outcomes. How we do that should be adapted, as needed, for each child.
I often discuss 'passive emotional learning' and 'active emotional education'. If we aim to help children grow up feeling less afraid of their emotions, more comfortable with uncertainty, and better equipped with coping tools and their purposes, then we require both approaches. This is where Emotional Literacy becomes indispensable.
Anxiety and emotional literacy are deeply intertwined. Emotional literacy involves recognising, understanding, and expressing emotions in oneself and others, crucial for effective self-awareness and building healthy positive relationships. Anxiety, on the other hand, can manifest emotionally and physically, affecting various aspects of life.
Here's how they intersect:
Recognition of Emotions: Anxiety can make it challenging to identify and label emotions accurately. Emotional literacy helps individuals pinpoint the specific emotions they're experiencing, enabling better self-understanding.
Understanding Triggers: Emotional literacy allows individuals to grasp the underlying reasons behind their anxiety triggers, empowering them to develop strategies for managing anxiety more effectively.
Communication Skills: Anxiety often hinders effective communication of emotions. Improving emotional literacy enhances communication skills, fostering healthier relationships and support networks.
Coping Strategies: Emotional literacy equips individuals with personalised coping mechanisms to manage anxiety effectively, empowering them to navigate challenges in healthy ways.
The Happiness Trap
Many children feel 'defective' in some way. As a society, we are told from a young age that people 'just want you to be happy'. However, when the rollercoaster of emotions that is life shows up, we can feel like we are letting people down, that there is something wrong with us as individuals. Many of us are ensnared in a 'happiness trap' and believe that we will be happy when we have the holiday, the kitchen, the job, the clothes—delete as appropriate. However, happiness, like anxiety, is just another emotion that comes and goes, when we fight with our emotions instead of accepting them, we struggle and have emotions about emotions. Everything escalates, and it feels out of control.
When we accept emotions for what they are, we keep our 'struggle switch' off.
In summary, anxiety can be daunting, especially for children, understanding it is crucial. Anxiety disorders can feel overwhelming, impacting daily life and hindering even the simplest tasks.
Emotional literacy is key to understanding, managing, and coping with these feelings, thereby reducing anxiety and improving mental health. By enhancing self-awareness, communication, and coping skills, individuals can develop authentic resilience and navigate life's challenges more effectively, through both passive and active emotional literacy practices, we can contribute to improved mental health and overall well-being.
Remember, you are the sky, and the emotions that come and go are just the weather, ever-changing.
You can support your child's emotional literacy development at Bridge the Gap in a variety of ways, from private 1:1 support to adult and child workshops and community groups and events. Read more about emotional literacy here, explore more free resources here and visit our events page here.
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