09/19/2015 09:08 EDT | Updated 09/19/2016 05:12 EDT

5 Ways for Special Needs Families to Handle Anxiety

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Anxiety runs in our family in various degrees. We're a nervous bunch, you could say, so it doesn't surprise me that our son is a nervous kid. I think he would have been anxious even had he not been born with autism.

Anxiety can be alright in small doses. What do professionals say -- it can spur us on to work or perform better, it can help us organize ourselves, and help us move forward. But when there is a whole lot of anxiety over every small thing, it can be clinically debilitating. I myself struggled with anxiety for most of my life, and these thoughts affected me mentally and physically. It was draining, and difficult to manage, though I did not and do not have an anxiety disorder. You don't have to have a full blown anxiety disorder for it to bring you down.

One thing I've learned in handling my anxiety, is that though there is no secret formula that works for everyone, there are common things you can do to lessen the effects of anxiety on your body. And if you are lucky, the techniques you apply will help change the way your body and brain deal with anxious thoughts.

I have so much less anxiety today, and even when I worry, I'm very aware of my body and its response to various stresses. I know what to do to calm myself down. With time, patience and practice, you can learn these techniques too. A therapist I worked with last year taught me a lot about handling my anxiety, and gave me wonderful resources which helped me. I also credit my mother and other tips I've garnered from the therapists that work with my son. You see, the wonderful thing is that these five ways can be taught to children and adults. At this time of year, as children and their parents are frazzled with back to school, multiple extra-curricular activity schedules and homework, I think this can be especially helpful. It can be a family's lifesaver in our ever increasingly fast-paced and stressful world. So, without further ado, here they are:

Five Ways For Special Needs Families To Handle Anxiety:

1. When anxious thoughts first appear, just focus on breathing. I know. It sounds redundant, but if focus on breathing, even repeating in and out in your head, you'll slowly become aware of areas of tension in your body that you didn't notice before. And best of all, you will start to calm down. Also, meditating for five to fifteen minutes a day can help. You can do this sitting on the floor or on a chair. Close your eyes, focusing on your breath. Sometime picturing a relaxing scene helps. And everyone, big or little, can find five to fifteen minutes a day to do this! :)

2. Have a family activity schedule up in a prominent place in the house, usually the kitchen, on the wall or fridge. On this schedule you'd write down all the family activities and when you're doing them, so there is a predictable routine in place, i.e. activities, supper time, homework time, etc.

3. Write down your list of worries. For kids they could draw what they worry, or you can help them write or draw it. As a wise therapist once told me: "Take it from up here (and pointed to her head) and put it down here." (pointing to the paper). There's something about seeing it down on paper that can help you work out what you need to do.

4. Use humor if you can. I have my own mother to thank for reminding me of this one. Obviously, this is to be used with discretion, as it depends on how deep the anxiety is. But generally, if we learn to laugh at ourselves a little, it can go a long way to changing our mindset. It's kind of like stepping outside of ourselves and seeing what we look like. We begin to see that our stress is temporary and will change soon.

5. Finally, good sleep hygiene, nutrition, and exercise, is a great way to help ease anxiety. When we are rested, well fed, and physically active on a regular basis, our resilience for life goes way up. We can handle stress and tackle problems in a more efficient way. This goes for big and little people.

I'm sure these are things we all think of, but forget to do in the moment. So, now I keep this list close by. This way when anxiety hits, I have my reference point. Remember, we all hit roadblocks sometimes, but it's in learning to navigate around the construction, that help us grow and be good examples of health and positive frame of mind for ourselves, our children and our community.


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