How Anxiety Works: Lessons from Kenya

I’ve wanted to go to Africa since I was a kid. I grew up in the era of Michael Jackson’s “We Are the World” and as he, Stevie Wonder and many of my favorites sang, images of starving children in Africa rolled by on the screen. My heart broke for those kids who were sitting in ditches, sucking on fingers with distended stomachs. I wondered how they’d get through another day and thought “how worried these kids must be!” They have no idea where they’ll get their next meal.

Meanwhile, I sat comfortably in a house, with a television, and food in my belly. WORRYING. Worrying about whether I’d have friends in class (when socializing was my best subject) and if I’d pass the third grade (when my grades were never an issue).

I felt guilty. How can I be worrying about these things when there are starving kids in Africa?

Fast forward a few decades. I arrive in Kahuria, Kenya on a service trip. I finally get my chance to relieve myself of guilt for those “foolish” worries I had as a kid and what I found were enthusiastic children in brightly colored, mismatched outfits wearing large smiles. They laughed, played with my hair. They sang songs. They weren’t worried. In fact, they were happier than I had been as a child.

This baffled me. How can kids living in survival not have anxiety? They don’t know where their next meal is coming from or if it will come at all. Diseases run rampant, many parents die young and with so much uncertainty, how can they be singing? Laughing? So at ease?

The answer didn’t come quickly. In fact, I lied awake several nights before the very thing I explain to parents, kids and yes, even myself, came back to me: Anxiety doesn’t exist in the rational. Anxiety lives in the irrational. When there is no threat of real danger, when a B on a test doesn’t mean actual death, when being ignored by a friend isn’t the end of life as we know it, anxiety exists.

The problem is that the irrational feels real. It really feels like a B on a test might be the end of your life or that you can’t survive being ousted from a friend group. The brain doesn’t discern between what is actual survival and what is feigned. That’s our job. The amygdala (our fear center) just does what it does: it alerts us of danger. Our job is to discern between what is really danger and what is our amygdala getting riled up for nothing.

The way I explained this to a teenager last week is like this: when you are getting ready to walk out into the street and you hear screeching tires your amygdala fires to let you know there is danger. But what if you looked up and saw a guy holding a machine that made the sound of screeching tires next to the road? You’d realize the threat wasn’t real, it was this strange guy with an affinity for scaring people.

That’s the power of rational thinking. It’s a struggle for those of us who have anxiety but the only real way to manage it. Those kids in Kenya were dealing with real screeching tires. Most of us here in the U.S. are dealing with the machine. For more information about how anxious and depressed we are compared to other countries click here.

Once we realize it’s a guy with a machine, we can use coping strategies to calm ourselves back down and realize there is no danger. The next time you get riled up about something that isn’t really jeopardizing your survival think about that guy with a machine and give him a little chuckle. It’s been working for me.



Why Sports are Good for Anxious Kids

I watched yet another kid climb into the window above the couch in my office. Within minutes, he jumped down, slam dunked a basketball at least 20 times, finally sat down on the floor and said, “Ok, now I’m ready.” He and I both knew what he meant. It was time to start the session. If I had tried to get him to start earlier, things wouldn’t have gone smoothly. In fact, he wouldn’t have been able to focus at all.

Following the session, I talked briefly with his mother. Her first question was, “He wants to play soccer but he’s already playing basketball. Is that too much?” My answer for the parent of this child, along with many other parents, is simple. Anxious kids have an excess amount of energy. Give them an opportunity to let it out and life will be much easier for not only them, but for everyone else in the house.

Just as I let him get some of his energy out before starting the session, it’s important for anxious kids to have MANY opportunities to get their energy out. It just so happens that one of the easiest ways is organized sports. Instead of you having to encourage them to get their energy out, the coach does that for you. Instead of you having to set aside time for exercise, practice and game times are already set. You just have to provide transportation.

In addition, studies have shown that children participating in sports, when compared to peers who do not play sports, exhibit:

• higher grades, expectations, and attainment

• greater personal confidence and self-esteem

• greater connections with school— that is, greater attachment and support from adults

• stronger peer relationships

• more academically oriented friends

• greater family attachment and more frequent interactions with parents

• more restraint in avoiding risky behavior; and

• greater involvement in volunteer work

As an anxious child myself, sports gave me both a physical and mental release. Basketball practice was the best part of my day because whatever I was worrying about before practice started seemed to work its way out by the time it ended. To this day, exercise proves to be my go-to release of both mental and physical energy. It was a tool I learned in childhood and is still beneficial to me as an adult.

If your anxious child wants to play sports, you are in luck. If he or she doesn’t, you may have to be more creative in finding a healthy outlet. But don’t worry, whatever outlet you can help your child find in childhood can become a healthy habit that will last a lifetime.


Byrdseed: A Great Resource for Smart Kids

A couple of months ago while at the SENG Conference in San Jose, I ran across a cool guy with a pretty amazing website. SENG stands for Supported the Emotional Needs of the Gifted and if you haven’t heard of it, I would recommend checking it out. Smart kids are twice as likely to have social and emotional problems and the folks at SENG are doing all they can to make sure smart kids get all of their needs met, not just the academic ones.

Ian Byrd is the founder of Byrdseed and is a former gifted teacher and software engineer. That combo makes for a pretty amazing gift of sharing information about smart kids in an easy-to-read format. He offers lesson plans for teachers, enrichment activities for parents and ideas about how to raise emotional intelligence.

One of my favorite posts is entitled, “Understanding High Energy Gifted Kids.” It is based on the following premise…

The article talks about the 5 OVEREXCITABILITIES that are found in smart kids. Those are:

  • intellectual – a deep passion to learn about specific topics
  • imaginational – possessing a rich imaginational world
  • sensory – having one or more heightened senses
  • emotional – an unusually large range of emotions
  • psychomotor – an excess of physical energy

The best part is the approach the article takes, which is to help kids burn off energy rather than requiring them to contain it. You can’t stop energy after all, you have to channel it. By using energy-releasing techniques at home (such as jumping on a mini trampoline before school) and at school (such as placing Therabands on chair legs) overexcited kids can get enough energy out to be successful in almost any situation.

Overall, I find Byrdseed to be a win/win for smart kids and those in their lives.