Childhood Anxiety, Part 3: How Beliefs Affect Behaviour

Photo by Rotorhead

Yesterday, Dr. Brian discussed an overall framework that many psychologists use to help kids and adults deal with anxiety. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or CBT for short, involves examining your thoughts, challenging your thinking patterns and noticing the changes this can make in how you feel.

I often explain how beliefs can affect behaviour by giving the following example. You’re a student at a bus stop and your bus races by you without stopping. How do you feel? People answer this question differently depending on what they are thinking. If you’re thinking about how inconsiderate the bus driver is, you’ll be angry.   If you’re thinking of being late and your principal’s punitive reaction, you’ll be scared. If you’re thinking of how little your parents care about you being late, you’ll be happy to have an excuse to be late as it affords you more time with your friends. If you’re thinking of how this would not have happened if your parents had bought you a car like Billy’s parent did, you’ll feel envious.

So given the premise that thoughts affect our feelings, psychologists go about trying to get people to become more aware of their thinking patterns. Thoughts have two common traits. First, they often run through our heads without our conscious awareness. Although we are not typically aware of it, our brains’ rarely stop thinking. If we were aware of each and every thought that popped into our minds, we would be easily distracted and terribly annoyed in short order. However, when emotional states, such as anxiety, cause us great suffering, it is important to take a closer look at thoughts that may be exacerbating some of the difficult experiences we endure in life. Second, our thoughts can also be automatic in nature. That is, when presented with similar situations we tend to develop re-occuring thought patterns. These “thought habits” can compromise our mental and emotional well-being. Being aware of and challenging our automatic negative thought habits is an important aspect of CBT treatment.

When I work with teens, I like to have them become more aware of their automatic thinking by unearthing the thoughts they are having when they are anxious. I typically  have them write these thoughts down and then systematically examine the evidence for and against the validity of these thoughts. This examination typically results in the realization that their thought processes are distorted. For example, catastrophic thinking patterns (e.g, “My heart is racing, that means I will have a heart attack and die”), and over-estimating the probability of a stressful event (e.g, “When I give that speech in front of the class tomorrow, all the kids will stand up and openly ridicule me”) are the two most common thought patterns leading to excessive anxiety in kids. Challenging these automatic thought distortions can significantly reduce children’s anxiety.

Treating anxiety is a multi-step process. Tomorow, Dr. Brian will be talking about addressing the physiological reactions related to anxiety and how parents can help deal with them.

Read Childhood Anxiety Part 1 and Part 2.

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5 Responses to Childhood Anxiety, Part 3: How Beliefs Affect Behaviour
  1. Marilyn
    August 26, 2009 | 9:34 pm

    Thank you for an interesting series on anxiety in children.

    I would be interested in finding out how to deal with anxiety in young children from the age of 2 and upwards. Especially for children who have had traumatic experiences in relation to crime and violence. The strategies listed in the article above are for older children who are able to articulate what they are thinking and feeling.

    Many thanks,

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  3. Dr. Giuseppe Spezzano, C. Psych.
    August 28, 2009 | 9:51 am

    First of all Marilyn, thank you for your question. It’s a good one.

    Whether we are talking about adults or children, the elements of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy discussed by Dr. Brian and myself over the past week as part of the psychological “tool kit” remain the same. That is, in both cases we consider using cognitive reframing, relaxation techniques, and exposure/desensitization in therapy.

    However, there are special considerations when it comes to children. First, there is less research on the effectiveness of these techniques with young children. Studies show that some of these techniques are effective with children, while others have shown mixed results. Second, some of the techniques may not be appropriate for really young kids (e.g., two year olds) as fantasy and reality are still difficult to distinguish for kids less than six years of age. Thirdly, language and cognitive issues make talk therapy difficult for very young kids. For his reason, play therapy is often used to facilitate communication.

    It is important to remember that when there is significant distress in reaction to trauma and abuse, specialized treatment by a professional is recommended.

  4. […] anxious. Changes in one or more of these areas is thought to help people to feel better. Yesterday, Dr. G posted some ideas about anxious thought patterns, but how can kids manage their body’s response to […]

  5. Childhood Anxiety
    September 4, 2009 | 2:02 pm

    […] Part 3: How beliefs affect behaviour […]