Anxiety comes from a part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is like that friend who loves you loads, but takes everything personally and always assumes the worst.
The amygdala’s job is to constantly scan the environment looking for threat. When it senses something that might be a threat – and separation, humiliation, exclusion count as threat – it will surge our bodies with a neurochemical fuel to get us ready to fight or flee the threat.
This is what strong, healthy amygdalae do, and they’ve been doing it since the beginning of forever. They are mighty masterful at the job – experts, actually – but sometimes they can work too hard to protect us, organising our bodies for fight or flight even when there is no need. When there is no fight or flight, there is nothing to burn the neurochemical fuel surging through us, so it builds up and creates the symptoms of anxiety. For our kids and teens – for any of us – this can feel awful, but there is a way to turn it around.
First though, about change …
The brain changes and wires through experience, so the more of something it does, the easier that something will be. This will happen for better or worse. Brave behaviour will lead to more brave behaviour, and avoidance will make avoidance more likely.
If anxiety has been around for a while, this is a sign that the amygdala is a strong, powerful, active one. This is absolutely not a sign of breakage. It’s a sign of a strong, healthy, powerful brain that has learned the fight or flight spectacularly well. It might take a little while to teach that amygdala to let go of that well-learned response, but absolutely this can be done.
For a while, moving through anxiety and towards brave behaviour might feel awkward and scary for your child, as any new behaviour does. When things feel awkward and unfamiliar, the temptation will be to go back to what’s familiar – for you and your child. This is how it is for all of us.
This might mean that when you encourage your child or teen towards brave behaviour, things might get a little worse before they get better – but they will get better. Just be aware of this, so you can give yourself and your small human some big love when you’re feeling mean for pushing them forward, or when they’re pushing against you with everything in them.
Something to keep in mind – ‘Does my response support them, or their anxiety?’
Avoidance will strengthen their anxiety, brave behaviour will strengthen them.
Anxiety can be a shady character. Sometimes it can feel as though our response is supporting our child, when actually it’s supporting his or her anxiety. This is a breathtakingly easy trap to fall into, and it’s likely that anyone who has a child who has been anxious at some point, has fallen into it. As parents we want to protect our children from harm. The thing is though, our role isn’t only to keep them safe, but to raise them to be strong, resilient and brave, so they can help themselves to safety.
For this reason, it is important to begin with the mindset that your child or teen has everything they need inside them to move towards brave behaviour. Anxiety drives drives avoidance, and the more avoidance is the chosen response, the more the brain will wire around that. This will drive a fierce tendency to avoid, as it will feel like the only way to stay safe.
The beautiful flip side of this is that the more our children and teens move towards a brave response, even when they’re feeling anxious, the easier brave behaviour will become. The right experiences can rework the neural wiring on two fronts. First, they can make an overprotective amygdala less likely to fire up unnecessarily. Second, they can strengthen the parts of the brain that can actually calm anxiety. No doubt about it, this will require patience and persistence. Understanding how it works will make it easier to move forward when everything in you or your child is telling you to retreat to somewhere that feels softer and less frightening.
Strengthening against anxiety is a process, and given that we are working with a strong, powerful, highly experienced amygdala that performs its job with fierce commitment, retraining it to be less active will take time and consistency – as all worthwhile things do.
There are three things that have been proven to change the structure and function of the brain to protect and strengthen it against anxiety. Mindfulness, exercise and gratitude can, quite literally, create new pathways in the brain that can support your child in being calmer, braver and less anxious. At the same time, they can work towards fading the pathways that have strengthened around fight (anger, tantrums) or flight (avoidance). Let’s look at how these work.
Exercise is the wonderdrug-but-not-a-drug of the mental health world. The effects of exercise on mental health are profound. In the same way exercise strengthens the body, it also does amazing things for the brain. Rne of the ways exercise strengthens the brain against anxiety is by boosting levels of important neurotransmitters. One of these is GABA
Some neurons are easily excited and quick to fire up. In the right amounts, they’re little gems. We need them to help us think quickly, act quickly and remember. When there are too many of them firing up though, anxiety can happen – but not if there is enough GABA to calm things down. GABA has the very important job of settling these neurons when they get a little too playful. If GABA is low, there is nothing to calm these over-excited neurons.
Think of mindfulness as paying attention to one thing at a time in the moment. Mindfulness trains the brain to let thoughts, feelings, sensations come and go. Thoughts in themselves aren’t the problem. The trouble comes when they stay for longer than they need to and fuel feelings and behaviour. With regular practice, mindfulness builds the capacity for children and teens to be with their thoughts and feelings, without reacting to them. Eventually, this makes way for anxious thoughts and feelings to be there, but without the intensity and persuasiveness that can drive fear and avoidance.
Here’s how mindfulness changes the brain:
- it decreases activity in the amygdala;
- it increases activity in the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that is responsible for calming our big emotional responses (such as anxiety, fear, anger);
- it strengthens connectivity between the reduce anxiety.
- it increases GABA (the neurotransmitter that also gets a boost with exercise);
- it decreases cortisol (the stress hormone);
- it strengthens the neural connections that activate the relaxation response, which is a response that has been found to neutralise the neurochemicals connected to the fight or flight response;
Anxious thoughts are often driven by anxious memories, but research has found that these memories don’t need to come from actual experiences. When children hear about an emotional experience, such as through the news, a friend, a movie, or a story, this can be enough to influence the amygdala. These experiences don’t have to be big to have influence. Hearing about an experience that was embarrassing, confusing, frightening or confronting for someone else, can be enough. These stories might not always be in awareness, but they can sit behind the scenes and drive worries, fear and negative thinking.
Positive memories can push against the power of frightening or emotional memories, and their capacity to fuel anxious thoughts and behaviour. Thoughts and memories also create pathways in the brain, so the more a thought or memory is accessed, the easier it will be to access in the future. Research has found that gratitude can increase our tendency to recall positive memories. When positive memories more accessible, they will have a greater influence on thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
Nurturing gratitude and building a store of positive memories can be done simply. Before school or at bedtime, ask your child or teen to name three things they is grateful for. Encourage them to write them in a journal, or on pieces of paper that get popped into a gratitude jar or box. This will create a visual cue, as well as a place they can go to when they need a little boost.
And finally …
We will never get rid of all anxiety our children feel – and we don’t want to. When there really is something to steer away from, the fight or flight response can be a lifesaver. What we want them to do is to read their anxiety, and to take charge. We want them to see that anxiety is a warning, and sometimes an unnecessary one, not a stop sign. Most importantly, we want to empower them to respond to anxiety with strength and courage, and to move towards brave behaviour whenever they can.
Any progress is great progress. Anxiety is difficult to deal with, but it is manageable. There will be steps forward and steps back, but over time the forward steps will become more and the backward ones will become less. Each one of these strategies will make a difference, and you don’t need to do all of them. Choose one to start with, and try to be as consistent as possible with that then, when they’re ready, introduce another. Be patient, and be kind to yourself. It takes time to nurture brave little people into brave big ones. And don’t underestimate the difference you’re making by being one of the people who believe in them, and who can see them for the capable, brave, magic-makers they are.