Monthly Archive

Worth Repeating: How to Reduce Anxiety: Yours and Your Child’s

By: Gary G. Brannigan, Ph.D. and Howard Margolis, Ed.D.
coauthors of Reading Disabilities: Beating The Odds.

Part II of this article may be found Here

Editor’s Note: This article is written for the parents of children who have Anxiety and related problems. We publish it here because we know that therapists like to give their client’s caregivers as much information as possible.

Many parents of children with disabilities worry—constantly. They fear the future, they feel extremely anxious—constantly. So do their children. Often, extreme, constant anxiety—fear of the future, fear that “I can’t handle it” and the results will be awful— creates physical and emotional distress. Physically, it can cause or aggravate endrocrine, gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular problems (Hanson & Mendius, 2009). Emotionally, it can cause or aggravate depression as well as sleep, attention, learning, social, and behavioral problems.
Fortunately, through relaxation, many parents and children can reduce excessive anxiety. Anxiety and relaxation are opposites. It’s hard—perhaps impossible—to feel anxious when relaxed. For some children, relaxation has produced important benefits:
Sufficient research supports the proposition that relaxation training can be both effective and efficient in helping children overcome cognitive (e.g., enhanced reading ability, reduced impulsivity), behavioral (e.g., greater attention-to-task, lowered hyperactivity), and affective (e.g., improved self-concepts, lowered anxiety) difficulties. (Margolis, 1990, p. 226)
But relaxation is easier to prescribe than do when people don’t know how to relax. This column will show you how.
Three Relaxation Strategies
Below are three relaxation strategies that might help you and your child. If either of you, however, has a history of psychological trauma, susceptibility to panic attacks, or other psychological or physical difficulties, consultant with a psychologist or psychiatrist before using any of these approaches.
Meditation: Meditation is an easy to employ technique to induce relaxation. It becomes increasingly easier to employ with daily practice. Although it can be used at almost any time, it is best practiced for 20 minutes daily in the same place, at the same time. Meditation works best if not employed immediately after eating or strenuous exercise. Benson identified the four basic elements: (a) a quiet environment, free from external distraction; (b) silent or subvocal repetition of a particular word or phrase; © elimination of all thoughts and distractions from the mind by adopting a passive attitude which allows you or your child to gently discard intruding thoughts by continued repetition of the selected word or phrase and accepting intrusive thoughts as natural; (d) sitting in a comfortable position. Meditation is often facilitated by keeping the eyes closed.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is based on two of Edmund Jacobson’s (1938) premises: (a) people cannot be simultaneously relaxed and stressed, and (b) mental relaxation is a natural consequence of physical relaxation. Because many children and adults are habituated to high levels of muscle tension, they are normally unaware of the excess tension in their muscles. By sitting and alternately tensing and relaxing major muscle groups for brief periods of time (e.g., tense five to eight seconds and relax 15 seconds) children and adults become acutely aware of when muscles are tensed and relaxed. Because muscles tend to relax easily immediately after tensing, children and adults learn to intentionally relax (i.e., completely rest) their muscles. Children and adults can learn to relax particular muscle groups so that the technique can be unobtrusively employed throughout the day when these muscle groups are not needed to perform the task at hand; for example, the thighs and non-dominant arm can be relaxed when reading, the shoulders when standing. Thus progressive muscle relaxation is a portable technique children and adults can employ at almost any opportunity. Edward Charlesworth and Ronald Nathan (1984) provide excellent step-by-step procedures and scripts to initiate progressive relaxation. You can download PMR audio programs (e.g. Lori Lite) from and similar sites.
Diaphragmatic Breathing. This takes only a few minutes and can teach you and your child how to relax when faced with an anxiety-provoking situation. Here’s how Aggie Casey and Herbert Benson (2006) described it:

  • Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit or lie down.
  • Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen, just below your belly button. Take a slow, deep breath. Your lower hand should move more than the hand on your chest.
  • Concentrate on letting your abdomen expand fully, drawing air down into your lungs. Notice your belly rising and falling with each breath.
  • Now practice this breathing for several minutes. (p. 35)

Of course, in an anxiety-provoking situation, you need not lie down. Just breath slowly from your diaphragm when sitting or standing.

Some Guidance
Try all three. Find the one that works for you and the one that works for your child—they may differ. Chances are your child will prefer PMR; you might like all three. (My favorites are daily meditation and, when facing anxiety-provoking situations, slow diaphragmatic breathing.) Ask your child to try a strategy only after you’re highly comfortable with it. Relax with him, using the same strategy. Try to get an expert to teach you how to use the strategy. An expert can be a friend with years of experience using the strategy or a certified expert, like a psychologist, special educator, or occupational therapist who has taken courses in relaxation and practices it daily. Ask your child’s guidance counselor to use the strategy with him, three or four times a week. Be patient: Give the strategy six to eight weeks to start showing benefits. But then again, patience and relaxation go hand in hand.

A Future Post
In the near future, we will describe other relaxation strategies and explain why relaxation training might be a related service under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA).


Casey, A., & Benson, H. (2006). Harvard Medical School Guide to Lowering Your Blood Pressure (Harvard Medical School Guides). NY: : McGraw-Hill.
Charlesworth, E. A. and Nathan, R. G. (1984). Stress Management: A Comprehensive Guide to Wellness. NY: Ballantine Books.
Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). The Practical Neuroscience of Budda’s Brain. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Jacobson, E. (1938). Progressive Relaxation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Margolis, H. (1987). Self-induced relaxation: A practical strategy to improve self-concepts, reduce anxiety, and prevent behavioral problems. The Clearing House, 60(8), 355-358.
Margolis, H. (1990). Relaxation training: A promising approach for helping exceptional learners. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 37(3), 215-234.
Howard Margolis, Ed.D. © Reading2008 & Beyond

This Month’s Featured Authors: Gary G. Brannigan, Ph.D. and Howard Margolis, Ed.D. coauthors of Reading Disabilities: Beating The Odds.

This column was originally published by Dr. Gary G. Brannigan (Professor of Clinical and School Psychology at the State University of New York –Plattsburgh) and Dr. Howard Margolis (Professor Emeritus of Reading and Special Education at the City University of New York) . They coauthored Reading Disabilities: Beating The Odds, a book to help parents identify their children’s reading difficulties, understand special education law, work with schools, and, if necessary, challenge schools to get their children the services they need. It is available at

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