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Mini-Review: Anxiety as (Fight-or) Flight

by Katie Engen, M.Ed


This review is part of a month-long "mini" series that examines different types of anxiety portrayed in picture books, offering readers tools for social-emotional learning.



The most basic response to big stress is “fight or flight.” It’s perfect if the source is a raging T-Rex. But it’s not always as effective for subtler dangers. (Especially in these days of quarantine, when "flight" a limited option.)


Let's take a look at Get On Your Bike by Joukje Akveld (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, February 5, 2018).


Bobby has a “thundercloud in his head” and “lightning flashing between his ears” because he and William argued. Now, he’s on his bike, heading through the town’s heaviest traffic, along some complicated roads with tight turns, and finally out to rolling hills and country lanes.


As his route opens up and gets a bit simpler, so do his thoughts.


This story is a visual model (sparse text is on point) for the calming process. Bobby’s ride starts as a way to blow off steam, purging negative physical responses from his body through physical exertion.


Activities:

Readers of all ages could define or draw ‘thundercloud in your head’ and ‘lightning flashing between your ears.” Next, brainstorm* problems of all sizes that can trigger the thunder and lightning. (Don’t spend a lot of time here; there’s no need to practice generating anxiety!)


Finally, brainstorm* a "movement menu." We may not be able to bike-ride through traffic, these days. But what other physical things help one blow off steam? Neighborhood bike-rides, trikes in the driveway, hikes, forest bathing, or city strolling...


And inside options are great, too. Dancing in the kitchen. Calisthenics in the family room... Personalize the menu to the needs and interests of the readers and their friends or caregivers. Make a picking system (deck of cards, paper slips) so it’s easy to choose a physical activity when anxiety-as-anger strikes.


*(Note: you might have to define the term 'brain-storm' for literal-minded younger kids. Usually brainstorming is encouraged as a creative, open-ended strategy. However, some divergent thinkers may notice (and perhaps dwell on) Bobby’s problematic thunder and lightning as a literal type of ‘brain-storm.’ You could even discuss the need for flexible thinking and the possibly confusing aspects of the term.)


A Further Reading Suggestion:


Another excellent picture book about dealing with anger/anxiety and flight/flight is When Sophie Gets Angry -- Really, Really Angry, by Molly Bang (Scholastic, 1999). Sophie, just like Bobby, needs to escape, to go off by herself, in order to cool down and regain perspective on her powerful feelings. She goes off alone on a hike, and climbs a special tree.

Do you have any other picture books to suggest, for dealing with anxiety/anger/irritation?



Katie O’Brien Engen, M.Ed, currently works in private practice to mentor students with executive functioning and language processing challenges. She also writes stories and cross-curricular lessons to engage young minds with big ideas, does writing work for hire, and reviews books for various kidlit outlets. Katie is fueled by faith and laughter, and rarely is she too busy for family, sports, or ice cream. She lives in Maryland where one of her favorite runs is the ~10 miles to the Washington Monument in D.C. Learn more about Katie here.