Anxiety in Children; How Breathing Re-Training Can Help

smiling beautiful young 5-year old child doing yoga bare feet cross-legged alone, closing eyes for relaxing energy on a wooden bridge in sunny natural environment

Anxiety in children is a common condition affecting about 25% of children aged between 13 and 18.  When children are anxious, they are in fight-or-flight mode.  In this state, the body feels threatened and reacts to help the person escape or avoid a threatening situation.

The body responds by releasing hormones that make the heart beat faster, causes breathing to quicken, and boosts blood sugar levels. Having this stress reaction activated too often, or for too long, can have adverse health consequences and cause numerous physical and emotional symptoms.

Physical Symptoms Include:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Hyperventilation – Quick breathing or difficulty catching one’s breath
  • Muscle aches
  • Headaches
  • Tummy aches
  • Shaking, dizziness, tingling around lips and in hands
  • Fatigue

Emotional Symptoms Include:

  • Ongoing worries about friends, school, or activities
  • A need for everything to be “perfect.”
  • Constant thoughts and fears about safety (of self or others, such as parents and siblings)
  • Reluctance or refusal to go to school
  • “Clingy” behaviour with parents
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Inability to relax

Fight or Flight Mode: Its Impact on Breathing

The unconscious body, otherwise known as the autonomic nervous system, determines whether we are in a fight-or-flight or rest-and-digest mode.

Children prone to anxiety tend to practice shallow upper rib breathing, which uses upper chest muscles rather than the diaphragm and can cause headaches, fatigue, cramps, and muscle tension.

A growing number of studies have shown that breathing may trigger body relaxation responses and benefit both physical and mental health. Focussing on diaphragmatic breathing can help turn off the fight or flight mode and bring your child back into a state of calm.

What Is Diaphragmatic Breathing?

Diaphragmatic breathing is a technique whereby children are thought to engage their diaphragm better when breathing.  It can help slow down breathing when a child is feeling stressed or anxious.

Children with anxiety tend to over-breath. An anxious child can take significantly more breaths per minute than a child in a calm state. This type of breathing is highly ineffective. It can lead to shallow upper rib breathing, which can deprive your child of carbon dioxide and result in hyperventilation (over-breathing), making the feeling of anxiety worse.  Diaphragmatic breathing is a much more efficient way to breathe in comparison to shallow upper rib breathing.

How Can I Tell If My Child Is Breathing Properly?

This is an easy test. Put your hand on your child’s tummy and ask them to breathe in. Feel and observe the breath. Is your child breathing through their tummy, or are they more upper rib breathing, where they breath more predominantly through the upper thoracic and rib area. If you find little movement through the tummy area, chances are your child is an upper rib breather.

How Can Osteopathy Help?

Diaphragmatic breathing involves contraction of the diaphragm, expansion of the belly, and utilisation of muscles in the neck and between the upper and lower ribs to allow for inhalation and exhalation. The diaphragm is one of the major primary respiratory muscles, and its function is vital for proper breathing.

An Osteopath will examine patterns of breathing in your child. We assess how well the diaphragm, ribs, thoracic and cervical spine function to facilitate optimal breathing patterns. In children with anxiety, we often find that the diaphragm is dysfunctional and held in a contracted state, making it difficult to breathe through, further increasing anxiety levels.

Children often suffer from headaches caused by upper ribs breathing.  There is often an over-contraction of neck muscles which causes dysfunction in the cervical spine segments, leading to tension-type and cervicogenic headaches.

Once we have improved the mechanics of breathing by improving the function of the diaphragm, ribs, upper thoracic spine and cervical spine, we will then teach your child how to breathe properly by focusing on diaphragmatic breathing. We often see an immediate change in breathing patterns after the first couple of treatments, which should help lower your child’s anxiety levels.

By practising diaphragmatic breathing, your child will have a better sense of control.  It is an excellent portable tool that your child can use anywhere when feeling anxious, especially in situations when you are not there to help them through it.

If you feel your child needs help with over-breathing,  headaches or tension in their neck, feel free to contact the Osteopaths at Better Health Osteopathy in Christchurch. Call 027 755 5700 or book online.

Better Health Osteopathy
Better Health Osteopathy
Lorraine Herity is the Clinic Director of Better Health Osteopathy in Christchurch, New Zealand. She previously worked in Osteopathic clinics in London and Ireland, before moving to New Zealand. Lorraine trained at the British School of Osteopathy in London, where she gained her Master of Osteopathy (M.Ost). Lorraine is a dedicated and passionate Osteopath. Her main aim is to help her patients regain their health, and to return her patients back to their everyday activities, in as quick a time as possible.

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