Anxiety

When Anxiety Attacks, Learn to R.O.A.R.

These practical tips can help your children take control of anxiety and panic.

Posted May 30, 2019

Fabiana Fonseca, used with permission
Source: Fabiana Fonseca, used with permission

It happens to everyone at some point: Stress takes over and morphs into something more. Your hearts pound too fast in your chest. Your pulse roars in your ears. Your joints tighten, and your skin begins to ignite. Your mind clouds as your thinking starts to slow. You are at once hyper-focused and unaware. You are experiencing an anxiety attack.

For our children, anxiety and panic attacks are an all too common reality. Researchers, including Jean Twenge6 and others, have found profound increases in anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideations in today’s children.7 Decreases in overall reports of life satisfaction and happiness, as well as underlying struggles with social-emotional development and resiliency, are also common among our youth.5

Learning strategies to work through periods of extreme anxiety are more important than ever. But, teaching your children to stop the progression of an anxiety attack can be difficult, at best. Your brain and body are hard-wired to keep you safe by engaging your fight-flight system, regardless of everything else.3 This is great when you are in a potentially life-threatening crisis. However, when an anxiety attack hits in the middle of your child’s science class, a fight-flight response is overkill.

Teaching children to release anxiety quickly can be a challenge, especially when the only thing they can think about is how freaked out they feel. Fortunately, there are tools you can teach your children to use to interrupt their fight-or-flight response and restore a sense of calm. One such protocol is something I call R.O.A.R.5

R.O.A.R., or Relax, Orient, Attune, and Release, is an efficient way to regain balance in the middle of an anxiety attack. It can be done in any setting, by anyone. It is a protocol I’ve personally used, and one I have used with children from four years old through adulthood.

The R.O.A.R. protocol:

  • Relax: R.O.A.R. starts with relax. The brain needs the benefit of relaxation to release the flight-or-flight response and re-engage your prefrontal cortex (the part of the mind responsible for problem-solving and critical thinking). Relaxation can be quickly accomplished through deep breathing. Inhale a full breath through your nose. Hold it for a second or two before exhaling. Exhale through your mouth for a period longer than your inhalation. This is an essential step, and it's where the magic happens. When the exhalation lasts longer than the inhalation, your body naturally tones your vagus nerve, resulting in lower blood pressure and a more relaxed state. An easy way to think about this is something called a 4-7-8 breath.8 Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. If the time frames don't work for you, change them. Just make sure you exhale longer than you inhale. Practice your deep breathing and use it as the first part of R.O.A.R.
  • Orient: Once you are relaxed, orient yourself to time and place. Anxiety is often referred to as a problem of worrying about the future.1 By orienting yourself into the "now," you stop thinking about the past or future. You focus only on what is happening right now, in front of you. This serves a few goals: first, focusing on the present enables you to determine if there are any life-threatening or severe crises currently occurring. When you see that there is no real crisis happening, the worries drop away and your calm deepens. Also, focusing on the present moment enables you to shift out of the anxiety entirely and attend only to your current needs. Considering that anxiety and stress are usually rooted in the dance between the past and future, attending to the present causes an immediate mind shift, resulting in significantly reduced anxiety.
  • Attune: The third step of R.O.A.R involves turning your attention inward and attuning to your needs at the moment. Many times stress and anxiety occur when we ignore our present-moment needs. Furthermore, many researchers connect anxiety and a lack of self-advocating for our personal needs in situations.2 Focusing inward enables you to pay attention and give yourself a voice. It also allows you to better determine what action is needed at the moment. Attuning to your needs is not something that comes naturally to most people. But reframing stress and anxiety as an alarm reminding you to check inward is a great way to retrain your brain and relax your stress responses.
  • Release: The final step of R.O.A.R. is release. This is a crucial step if you are going to move from anxious to calm. One of the reasons people fall into a pattern of anxiety is because anxiety works in a cycle that the brain records as necessary for survival. Often it resembles something like this: a triggering event leads to a fight-or-flight response, which leads to worry that there is a severe, life-threatening event, which leads to an increased fight-or-flight-response and more worry. The cycle continues on and on, and each time your brain strengthens its belief that the concern, the anxiety, is necessary for survival.4 The release enables you to break the cycle and change the brain's internal script. Releasing involves a willingness to give-up your resistance to the anxiety. You must stop fighting against yourself and just surrender to the feelings. I know, just thinking about this causes more stress. But, if you relax, orient to the present, and attune to your inner needs first, releasing your resistance will feel natural.

It may take a little time for R.O.A.R to become a habit. But the more you practice the skills with your child, the sooner it will feel natural. Try this: The next time your child is in the throes of an anxiety attack, take a deep breath or two with him or her. Remind him or her to orient him or herself to the present moment and ask, “What do I need right now?” Help your child naturally release the fear and watch as the anxiety subsides.

Anxiety doesn't have to be a constant presence in your child’s life. Practicing R.O.A.R will help you move past the anxiety and into a more balanced state of calm.

References

1. Bourne, E.J. (2015). The anxiety and phobia workbook (6th ed.). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

2. Burns, D.D. (2006). When panic attacks: The new drug-free anxiety therapy book that can change your life. New York, NY: Harmony Books.

3. Fonseca, C. (2015). Raising the shy child: A parent’s guide to social anxiety. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

4. Fonseca, C. (2017). Letting go: A girl’s guide to breaking free of stress and anxiety. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

5. Fonseca, C. (2019). The caring child: raising empathetic, emotionally intelligent children. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

6. Twenge, J. M. (2019). The sad state of happiness in the United States and the role of digital media (World Happiness Report). Retrieved from https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2019/the-sad-state-of-happiness-in-the-united-states-and-the-role-of-digital-media/.

7. Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2018). Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study. Preventive Medicine Reports, 12, 271-283. doi:10.1016/j.pmedr.2018.10.003.

8. Weil, A.  (2010). 4-7-8 Breath Relaxation Exercise [pdf file]. Arizona Center for Integrated Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.cordem.org/globalassets/files/academic-assembly/2017-aa/handouts/day-three/biofeedback-exercises-for-stress-2---fernances-j.pdf