Childhood Anxiety and Depression: The Transformative Role of Mindfulness and Exercise

Childhood Anxiety and Depression
Have you noticed more anxious behaviours in your children over the past few years? If you have, you aren’t alone. In a recent JAMA Pediatrics article, researchers noted that childhood anxiety and depression rates have steadily increased over the past five years.1 In fact, even before the pandemic, childhood anxiety rates had increased by a whopping 27 percent between 2016 and 2019.1 These statistics confirm what many parents and clinicians have seen firsthand; increased anxiety and depression have led to challenges in academic performance, social interaction, and overall well-being.

As a naturopathic doctor, I often herald the power of exercise as an accessible and holistic way to manage mental health concerns. Let’s explore specific strategies that can empower children strategies that not only provide physical benefits, but also foster emotional resilience by equipping them with the tools they need to succeed.

Mental Health & Exercise 

There is a profound connection between physical activity and mental health, even in childhood. Serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins are “feel good” chemicals produced when we exercise and are crucial in regulating mood. Not only are they involved in feelings of achievement, satisfaction, and happiness, but they also have a significant regulatory effect on cortisol, our stress hormone. Especially for children, whose emotional worlds are still developing, engaging in physical activity can play a key and transformative role in their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Core Coping Strategies 

Short-term strategies and coping skills that can help immediately during a heightened mood dysregulation episode are the first components of this strategy. These coping skills are often referred to as mindfulness or grounding techniques.

The 54321 Method 

If your child experiences an episode (such as an anxiety attack), grounding techniques like the 54321 method can be particularly useful. The goal here is to shift the child’s attention away from their rampant anxieties and refocus by engaging their physical senses. This technique is as simple as asking: 

» Can you tell me 5 things that you see right now? 

» Great! Now, can you tell me 4 things that you feel or can touch? (e.g., the shoes on their feet) » Wonderful! Now, can you tell me 3 things you can hear? (e.g., the ticking of a clock) 

» You’re doing great! Now, use your nose: What are 2 things you can smell? 

» Perfect! Lastly, tell me 1 thing you can taste right now.

By engaging your child’s physical senses, you can provide a much-needed distraction from the distress they are experiencing—shifting their mind away from their anxieties while recentering on things they know. This method promotes both emotion identification and self-management skills, for kids and adults alike!

Other Grounding Techniques 

If the 54321 method doesn't work, there are plenty of others you can try, such as the ABC method. This involves having your child look, listen, or feel for things that start with the corresponding alphabet letter. For example, you might say: “Can you find something that starts with the letter A? How about B? . . . C?”

Other common grounding techniques place their focus on breath work. When a child enters “fight or flight” mode, their breathing rate increases; the goal here is to shift away from rapid breathing to slower, “rest and digest” breathing. Here are a couple of examples:

» Belly Breathing - Have your child place their hand on their belly. Ask them to breathe in through their nose until their belly is expanded; next, have them exhale through their mouth, and challenge them to exhale until their hand is flat across their belly. Have them do this 5–10 times, and then check in on their feelings.

» Fire and Flower - Have your child pretend there is a candle in one hand and a flower in the other. Ask them to blow into the first hand as if they’re blowing out a birthday candle, and then smell the other hand as if they’re holding roses. Repeat 5–10 times.

Exercise & Endorphins 

By teaching your child how to cope with anxiety, you are giving them tools to improve their emotional regulation. These tools should be paired with regular physical activity. Not only does the degree of physical activity at young ages predict future physical activity levels, but studies have shown that exercise, even just walking, can have a huge impact. For example, dedicated walking for 20–40 minutes three times per week was found to effectively reduce depressive symptoms. Regular physical activity has also shown promise in the context of reducing future depressive or anxiety disorder risk.

“Numerous studies have shown the benefits of yoga for children, where as little as 10 minutes per day can significantly decrease the impact of anxiety and depression.” 

The key here is to find an activity that works for your child. It could be as simple as spending time in nature each day after school, as studies have shown that “forest bathing” for as little as 20 minutes can have a huge impact on mental health. For others, this could look like joining a sports team. One of the most common recommendations I make to my patients is to get involved with yoga. 

With yoga, you don’t need a fancy gym membership or live instructor. There are hundreds of good quality, free resources available online through YouTube or Instagram. Yoga can be done in the living room in front of a TV or outside. The goal is to set a realistic goal and stick to it. Most kids can’t handle a full hour of yoga, but 10–30 minutes is very attainable. This is also an activity that you can do together! Numerous studies have shown the benefits of yoga for children, where as little as 10 minutes per day can significantly decrease the impact of anxiety and depression.

In the battle to improve the mental health of our children, exercise stands out as a beacon of hope. By integrating grounding techniques, coping strategies, outdoor exploration, yoga, or other forms of physical activity, we empower our children to navigate the complex landscape of their emotions. Not only can these activities alleviate anxiety and depression that might impact their home and academic lives, but they also instill a foundation of resilience that will serve them well into adulthood.