Caroline Cranshaw: Tips for helping kids with anxiety and OCD

As a therapist, I’m seeing an alarming amount of children with anxiety. The Ministry of Health now estimates that 12 per cent of children are suffering from some form of emotional or behavioural difficulty. As a mother, I have also helped my children through periods of anxiety and OCD so know first-hand how hard it can be as a parent to try to support your child in overcoming issues with anxiety.

When one of my daughters was seven years old, she started developing anxiety. At first, it was a paranoia that our home was going to be broken into and that we would be attacked, as a child at her school had experienced a terrifying home invasion. She became scared to go to sleep and would scream the house down if she didn't have someone sleeping with her. Then she didn't want to go to school in case something happened to me, her anxiety seemed to escalate.

Next, she started showing serious OCD behaviours. She had to count how many times she did everything, walking, washing her hair in the shower, checking locks, chewing her food and if you interrupted her while she was counting, she had to start over. I took her to doctors, therapists, tried using hypnotherapy techniques and nothing seemed to help.

In my desperate search to find something that would help, I came across some information about a disorder called PANDAS in children. PANDAS stands for Paediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections. With PANDAS the immune system mistakenly attacks a certain part of the brain, the basal ganglia, rather than the Strep bacteria. The basal ganglia are connected with movement as well as affecting cognitive and behavioural functions.

PANDAS specific symptoms may include:

  • Severe anxiety
  • OCD - Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (obsessive counting, touching things in a certain way, excessive hand washing, germ phobias, fear of getting sick)
  • Food anxiety and/or phobias with food and eating
  • Tics and/or repetitive movements

Traditional anxiety, OCD and Tourette’s symptoms tend to be gradual and develop over time whereas people with PANDAS symptoms can develop within a few days and can quickly become severe.

And they are finding that Streptococcus is not the only infectious agent that can cause these symptoms. There is also a condition known as Paediatric Acute-Onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome (PANS), which has similar symptoms due to other infectious agents such as mycoplasma (the bacteria commonly responsible for chest colds, bronchitis, and pneumonia), mononucleosis, Lyme disease, and even the flu virus.

My daughter’s symptoms matched those of PANDAS/PANS. She had a tummy bug which turned into a sore throat and cough. I had taken her to the doctors who told me it was probably viral to wait it out. I took her straight back after finding out about the connection with bacterial infections and anxiety and OCD but my doctor had never heard of PANDAS and said it must be very rare and besides it was too late for antibiotics as it was months after she had been sick.

I left more frustrated than ever but decided to take a more natural approach. I took her to a naturopath who put her on a natural antibiotic, immune-boosting protocol and she started to improve within a week. I tried every technique I could find for anxiety with her and found several that seem to really help.

It took about a month for her to be free of the anxiety and OCD once we started addressing the immune system and using more bodily techniques to address the nervous system. As a hypnotherapist, I also started seeing lots of kids with anxiety and OCD and found there seem to be a clear connection with the child being sick right before their anxiety started.

Here are the supplements and techniques I recommend if your child is suffering from anxiety and/or OCD.

1. Get treatment with antibiotics and immune-boosting supplements

Obviously, talk to your doctor first and if the anxiety and OCD are new developments due to an illness, get your child treated with the appropriate antibiotics or medication. If it is too late to treat with antibiotics, like it was in my daughter’s case, find a holistic doctor or naturopath familiar with the disorder to address the cause.

Your immune system, brain and gut are all interconnected and affect each other. Psychological techniques alone will take a very long time or be ineffective unless the immune system is addressed.

The supplements that worked for my daughter were oregano oil, grapefruit seed extract (both natural antibiotics) and cats claw (a natural immune booster that is very effective in cases where the immune system is attacking the body).

2. Boost GABA levels with supplements

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is your brain’s natural Valium. If you’re high in GABA—you feel relaxed and stress-free. If you are low in GABA—you feel anxious, irritable, overwhelmed, stressed and wired.

L-Theanine an amino acid found in green tea increases levels of GABA within the brain, as well as boosting focus and mental clarity. Studies show that l-theanine is useful in the treatment of anxiety due to its ability to calm the nervous system, counteracting the toxic effects of stress as well as improving sleep.

Inositol - Inositol is one of my favourite supplements for people who suffer from anxiety since it raises GABA levels which has a relaxing effect. It has also been shown to be beneficial for treating anxiety, depression, insomnia and panic disorders.

3. Hypnotherapy and NLP

Anxiety is triggered by the nervous system and the subconscious mind. Your subconscious controls all of your involuntary bodily functions and its number one job is to keep you safe and alive. The subconscious believes that by triggering anxiety or the fight or flight response, it’s keeping you safe. In people with anxiety, subconscious needs to learn that by triggering anxiety in non-threatening situations, it’s not keeping you safe but causing you harm.

Your subconscious records everything that happens to you and creates programs from those memories. Anxiety can be a faulty program and the fastest way to change subconscious programs is by using hypnotherapy and NLP techniques. There are lots of great therapists out there that can really help as well as tons of free resources online and Youtube.

4. The Vagus Technique

There is a nerve in your body that, if stimulated properly, will trigger cell repair for any organ in your body including the brain. It will lower high blood pressure, block inflammation, alleviate allergies, and reduce seizures. Stimulating this nerve can reduce anxiety and depression, improve your memory, release optimum energy levels, enhance the digestion of your food and even rebuild your DNA.

The vagus nerve (pronounced Vay-gus – meaning ‘wandering’) is a very long nerve that runs from the centre of your brain, down through your chest (connecting to your heart) and diaphragm, and ends up in your intestines (solar plexus). The vagus nerve is connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, which manages your digestion, relaxation and healing responses, and in turn can influence the health of your immune cells, organs and tissues, and your stem cells.

One of the key roles that the vagus nerve plays is acting as the cool-down button after you experience something stressful. The simple act of taking a few deep breaths after a traumatic experience will stimulate the vagus nerve to talk to the rest of your body, and tell it that the threat is gone and that your bodily functions can return to normal.

Deep diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve and so does stimulating the muscles around the eyes.

The Vagus Technique:

  1. Hold your finger up to the level between your eyes - around 3 to 4 inches or 8 to 10 cm from your eyes.
  2. Look at and focus on your finger for around 5 seconds and then look at the farthest point you possibly can for 5 seconds.
  3. Do this three times and then apply pressure to your closed eyes, pressing firmly for 3 to 5 seconds.
  4. Take slow deep breaths as you do this.
  5. By using the two different muscle groups around your eyes, you stimulate the vagus nerve. Then, by applying ocular compression (pressure to your eyes), you stimulate the vagus nerve but also trigger large amounts of GABA to be released.

GABA is a chemical that helps to shut down "messages gone out of control" i.e. anxiety, seizures and restores balance in the brain. This is how anti-anxiety and seizure drugs like Valium work; by stimulating GABA receptors. When pressure is applied to the eyes, large amounts of GABA are sent, widespread, to the brain. Compare it to getting an instantaneous fast-acting shot of valium or lorazepam. You can actually inhibit or stop seizures by applying pressure to the eyes to trigger a GABA release.

When you are dealing with a child suffering from anxiety, it can feel hopeless and overwhelming, but just know that it can be healed. The key is finding what will work for your individual child and addressing the underlying cause. 

I’m creating a digital product to help children with anxiety so if you are interested, you can contact me to find out more here.

Caroline Cranshaw is a hypnotherapist, founder and trainer at the New Zealand Integrative Hypnotherapy Training Institute and the author of The Smoking Cure. Find out more about her at nzhypnotherapy.co.nz. Listen to Caroline's new podcast WTF Stories & Advice.