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 that can affect 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 which makes the heart beat faster, causes breathing to quicken, and boosts blood sugar levels. Having this state of stress activated too often, or for too long, can have adverse consequences on health, and can 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 of 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: It’s 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 to 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 better engage their diaphragm 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 can result in hyperventilation (over breathing), which can make the feeling of anxiety worse, and can cause headaches, fatigue, cramps, and muscle tension. Diaphragmatic breathing is a much more efficient way to breath 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 him/her to breath 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 in between the upper and lower ribs to allow for inhalation and exhalation. The diaphragm itself is one of the major primary respiratory muscles, and its function is vital for proper breathing to take place.

An Osteopath will examine patterns of breathing in your child. We assess how well the diaphragm, ribs and thoracic and cervical spine are functioning in order 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, which further adds to the child’s 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 which can lead to tension-type and cervicogenic headaches.

Once we have improved the mechanics of breathing; by working on improving the function of the diaphragm, ribs, upper thoracic spine and cervical spine; we then will teach your child how to breath properly by focusing on diaphragmatic breathing. We often see an immediate change in breathing patterns after the first couple of treatments and this should help to 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 him or her through it.

If you feel your child needs help with over-breathing,  headaches or tension in their neck, feel free to contact Lorraine Herity at Better Health Osteopathy in Christchurch. Call 027 7555700 or book online.

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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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