Big Feelings, Little Strategies that Work

“We have a part in our brain that is like an alarm called the amygdala. It goes off by itself when we feel worried or scared. It helps protect us.”

~ Big Feelings Come and Go storybook for children

Let’s talk about big feelings. Fear. Worry. Anger. Anxiety. How do you cope with them? How do you help kids manage their big feelings?

The 2018 book, Big Feelings Come and Go, written and published by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection and New Directions for Children, Adults and Families, tackles these questions in a gentle, engaging and informative manner for children. Using animal characters, cartoon illustrations and simple text, the book explains how our bodies react to stress and trauma, identifies the 3 main reactions to intense emotions — fight, flight or freeze — and outlines how we can settle our bodies after feeling fear or worry.

This book is especially meaningful to me as a person who has experienced social anxiety most of her life. As a young child, I used to hide when people came to visit. I bit my nails, blushed excessively, felt like my head was growing larger like an inflating balloon when I spoke. I often escaped into books. On the two occasions I was reprimanded in elementary school by a teacher, I was completely mortified and sobbed inconsolably at home for hours under my pillow. I joined clubs in middle school, but pulled back from anything that might make me the centre of attention because I was afraid of being ostracized, teased and bullied, which I sometimes was. My Grade 8 teacher, Mrs. Hughes, wrote on my June report card, “Don’t be afraid to participate.” I was devastated that she knew.

During my teen years, I pushed myself to go out with friends, take part in school trips and get a part-time job, but I also started getting migraines. I tried to act the part of a normal teenager and generally failed miserably, which compounded the anxiety even more. While in university, I would call in sick to work sometimes because I could not handle a co-worker who was particularly forthright and outspoken. As I entered adulthood, I learned I managed best with people one-on-one or in small groups where I had a defined role. Or working with children. Kids have never triggered any anxiety. But lunch-time staff meetings? Wow. They used to be overwhelming; I was so afraid to be called upon, I could barely eat my food. And if I didn’t eat my lunch, I would get a migraine in the afternoon. It was a vicious cycle.

As someone who actually wants to help and contribute, my social anxiety was annoying, but I generally pushed through it, mostly because I didn’t know it was what I had. A book like Big Feelings Come and Go would have been so helpful to me 40 years ago, so that I could have grown up understanding what was happening in my brain and body, and how I could control it effectively.

Instead, I grew up thinking I was weak and somehow defective. So I overachieved and overcompensated. That was my coping strategy. How could I have a problem? I won tons of academic awards in middle school, high school and university. I completed 2 university degrees and a post-grad certificate. I had a good teaching job. I was happily married with two healthy kids. I had even trained for and achieved my first- and second-degree black belts. By all external measures, I was successful. Nope. No problem here.

It all came to a head though in the year after my Mom died and my amygdala could not handle the collision of grief and anxiety. My migraines raged out-of-control. I had a panic attack in my former principal’s office. My body, which tends towards flight and avoidance under stress, went into full-on freeze mode. From that low point, I started educating myself about anxiety, consulting experts and practicing constructive strategies, like deep breathing and grounding techniques, similar to what is outlined in Big Feelings Come and Go.

And this is what I can say: they do work. It is a slow process, especially when you are an adult, unlearning previous strategies that are no longer adaptive. For me, it felt like 2 steps forward, 1 step back at times. Generally, I am much better in large groups now, more confident, less self-conscious. I continue to struggle with blunt, vociferous people at times. But it’s great to live life more fully, not afraid of being judged all the time.

I still have set backs though, like last year. My husband and I were “the new people” and some of the last to arrive at a large parent council meeting of 50 strangers. We had to sit at the front, at the inside tip of a U-configuration, surrounded on all sides by people chatting like old friends, blocked entirely from the exit. The balloon head sensation started then.

I had to introduce myself, and although I could not recall what I had said immediately after, I was convinced I babbled too long about my qualifications, and I could my feel my ears burning in shame. The negative internal dialogue started. I thought to myself, “I can’t do this. All I really want is to help in the library and maybe at the book fair. I already told the vice principal. Do I really need to go through all this?” At one point, my phone went off in the mostly silent room, and as all eyes turned towards me, I wanted to crawl under the table, I was so embarrassed I had not turned off my ringer.

I felt panic rising steadily during the excruciating 2-hour meeting, but I practiced my deep breathing, talked nicely to myself and kept squeezing and releasing my toes. Imagine my horror though, as the meeting adjourned and I stood to bolt to the door for fresh air and freedom, only to learn that there was an additional 25-minute slideshow presentation on the “deep, rich, meaningful learning” taking place in the school garden. I love gardens, I really do, but at that point I was just about ready to tell them where they could shove their zucchinis.

Finally, it really was time to go, at which point, my husband, seeing the wild look in my eyes, grabbed my hand and quickly led me through the doors, down the stairs and out onto the street. He turned to me, and with a smirk on his face, said, “Well, that’s two and a half hours of our lives we’re never getting back, hey? But seriously, we can’t do that again.”

I don’t know if it was the fresh air, his humour or the validation that it was pretty brutal for him too, but I burst into laughter and felt all the stress drain from my body. The anxiety, even when it comes now, goes away much more quickly.

Our kids have their own quirks when it comes to anxiety. One gets frequent stomachaches. The other has to check that the front door is locked constantly. Little things, sure, but worthy of note. Books like Big Feelings Come and Go help us create a safe space for our kids to talk about about their feelings. It also gives them the words to understand what is going on in their brains and bodies when they are afraid. And knowledge really is power.

I particularly like how the book compares the amygdala to an alarm in the body that goes off when we feel worried or scared. School-aged children have experience with fire alarms, so the alarm analogy is something to which they can easily relate. The book also explains to children that they need to “practice what to do when the amygdala sounds the alarm.” Again, children can easily relate to this concept, as they have fire drills at school to practice what to do in case of fire. That practice is necessary in order to gain the skills to calm your body is one of the most important messages in the book, I believe. It is what has helped me the most.

The best news is if you want a copy of the book, you can download an electronic version for free, (for personal use only), at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection website:

https://protectchildren.ca/en/order/product/301:en/

You can also order a print version for $9.95. Multiple languages, including French, are available too.

Video adaptation of Big Feelings Come and Go to share with kids are available here:

https://protectchildren.ca/en/video-storybooks/big-feelings-come-and-go/

Mental health and wellness is a crucial determinant in quality of life, so it is important to teach our children early how their brain and bodies work and how to practice self-calming strategies. Resources like Big Feelings Come and Go will help.

Disclaimer: Lisa’s Book Corner is not affiliated with or endorsed by the C3P or New Directions, nor does Lisa’s Book Corner own or have any part in the creation of the digital adaptation of the Book or any other materials on any C3P website.

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