According to Beyond Blue, 1 in 14 kids between 4-17 will experience an anxiety disorder. Many more will experience the feeling of anxiety at some point during childhood. Anxiety tends to occur during times of change. Experiences like going back to school, moving from primary school to high school and travel can lead to symptoms of anxiety. The good news is that there are ways to manage anxiety in children naturally.
If you have a child with anxiety, it’s important to understand the underlying triggers and contributing factors. Once you know these, you can take steps to help them manage their symptoms.
Watch the video below or keep reading to learn more about natural ways to manage anxiety in children.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a multi-system response to a perceived threat or danger. It can affect any system in the body, which is why symptoms differ between people. The symptoms can vary, but some of the most common include:
- Racing heartbeat
- Excess worrying
- Feelings of apprehension
- Feeling fatigued or weak
- Dry mouth
- Digestive disturbances like diarrhoea
- Disturbed sleep
- Difficulty relaxing
Most of us will experience feelings of anxiety at some point in our lives. But if you or your child are feeling anxious most days, it may be classified as an anxiety disorder.
Common Causes & Risk Factors For Anxiety In Children
If you have a family history of anxiety, you’re more likely to develop anxiety at some point. I like to say that genetics is like a loaded gun, but diet and lifestyle is what pulls the trigger. You can’t change your genetic makeup, but nutrition and lifestyle can turn genes on and off.
One specific genetic factor for anxiety is MTHFR. This is a gene that plays an important role in methylation and folate metabolism. Our bodies need to convert folate into an active form. But if there’s a defect or mutation in the MTHFR gene, the conversion doesn’t happen effectively.
If folate conversion isn’t happening, it affects the production of brain chemicals. When the balance of brain chemicals is thrown out, it can lead to anxiety and other mental health symptoms.
Mutations in this gene are quite common. If I see anyone with a mental health concern, I will usually test for this. That way, we know what we’re dealing with, and if we need to add activated B vitamins to correct the poor conversion.
It’s also been shown that anxious mums are more likely to have kids that develop mental health issues including anxiety. There’s no clear evidence whether this is solely genetic or if it’s a learned behaviour, so it can put a bit of pressure on anxious mums! But it’s also good motivation for you to get support for your own anxiety and manage it.
Past or current trauma can lead to anxiety in children. Trauma is beyond my scope as a naturopath, which is why I recommend working with a counsellor or psychologist. That way, you can address the trauma, and come up with strategies to deal with anxiety symptoms.
Many symptoms of anxiety are related to the gut, like diarrhoea, pain, nausea and gurgling. There’s a close link between the gut and the brain – in fact, the gut is often called the ‘second brain’. So if the gut isn’t optimal, it can affect how the nervous system and brain work.
Dysbiosis, or an imbalance of gut bacteria, has been linked as a potential cause of anxiety. In one study, half of the participants were given a probiotic, and the other half were given a common anti-anxiety medication. The probiotic group saw a similar reduction in cortisol and symptoms as the medication group. So probiotics could be just as effective as medications for anxiety!
A balanced microbiome is thought to protect the nervous system, the brain and the adrenal glands (HPA axis). This can control the reaction to stress and reduce the response to stressful situations. So the better your gut health, the greater your protection against anxiety.
Changes in hormones can have a massive impact on anxiety. Many women have experienced this as increased anxiety when they are pre-menstrual. Anxiety is more prevalent around puberty for girls. Boys may also experience anxiety that is triggered by puberty.
Oestrogen and testosterone are the main sex hormones that trigger anxious feelings. Low and high levels of both can affect mental health, so it’s best to focus on balancing them out. There’s no one way to do this, so it’s best to work directly with a practitioner.
It’s important to remember that some kids are more sensitive to hormonal changes, even prior to puberty. But if you do notice that your child is experiencing more anxiety as their body develops, hormones are likely a reason.
Nutrient deficiencies and insufficiencies are a common factor for anxiety in children. Often, these are not picked up on by a doctor or medical professional. But correcting them can have a massive impact on the symptoms of anxiety.
Magnesium is my first go-to nutrient for anxiety in children (and adults too!) Magnesium balances out the stress response and reduces symptoms of anxiety. It can also help with things like sleep, muscle health and energy. Magnesium deficiency is not uncommon, as the Australian soil is quite low in magnesium.
Another nutrient to consider is omega-3 fatty acids. Most kids don’t get enough omega-3s in the diet. The best source is seafood, which kids often don’t eat enough of. Nuts and seeds have some omega-3s, but the form of omega-3 in plants needs to be converted before the body can use it. If you can’t get 2-3 serves of fish and seafood into your child each week, you might want to consider a fish oil supplement.
B vitamins including folate, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6 are important for correcting anxiety in children. They act as co-factors for brain chemicals, so low levels can cause imbalances. As these vitamins are water-soluble, the body can’t build up a store of them, so kids need to be consuming them daily.
Other nutrients that might be contributing to anxiety include vitamin D and iron.
Sometimes, a supplement is warranted for one or more of these deficiencies. But it’s best to consult a naturopath for advice on which supplements to take.
Chronic stress is another contributing factor to anxiety. Stress can increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Over time, chronically elevated cortisol can lead to anxiety symptoms.
Like trauma, you may want to seek support from a mental health professional to come up with strategies to help with stress. But you can also reduce cortisol levels with self-care and lifestyle changes. Exercise, meditation, mindfulness and even just sitting quietly can help.
Pyrrole disorder is an imbalance that can lead to anxiety. When pyrrole levels are high, they cause the body to excrete zinc and vitamin B6. These nutrients are essential for brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, so pyrrole disorder can cause an imbalance in these neurotransmitters.
In my clinic, I find that pyrroles is a very common cause of anxiety. It is easy to test for through a urine test. If we take action to reduce the pyrrole levels, we can get on top of the anxiety symptoms.
Handy tips for addressing anxiety in children
The best way to manage anxiety in children is to work with a practitioner who can help you identify underlying causes. A practitioner can help you work on their gut health, balance their hormones and address any nutrient deficiencies. But there are a few other steps to consider.
Clean up their diet
Add nutrient-rich foods
A traditional diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables, protein and wholegrains may be protective against anxiety. You want to focus on adding plenty of wholefoods, particularly those that are rich in magnesium, omega-3s, zinc, vitamin D, iron and B vitamins.
Look at testing for MTHFR and pyrrole disorder
As MTHFR and pyrrole disorder are quite common factors in anxiety, testing for them is a good starting place. Both of these tests are non-invasive – MTHFR can be tested with a swab, and pyrrole disorder with a urine test. Because both of these conditions are quite complex, you’ll want to work with a practitioner to create a management plan.
Work with a counsellor or psychologist
Working with a mental health professional can help kids to identify their feelings and develop strategies to deal with anxiety. Even simple practices like mindfulness and deep breath work well for kids.
I recommend working with Emma Holdsworth. Emma offers consults in Adelaide and via Skype, and has extensive experience working with kids.
Are you looking for a practitioner that can support your child with anxiety? Anxiety in children is an area that I work with all the time. I offer Skype appointments for clients worldwide. To find out more or book an appointment, click here.