Anxiety, Depression and the Surprising Role of Gut Bacteria

Mounting evidence is pointing to a powerful connection between the gut and the human brain, with the latest research coming from neurobiologists at Oxford University. Their findings are compelling and have promise for the management and future direction for treatments of depression and anxiety.

Inside the human body are trillions of microbes, collectively knows as the microbiome. When taken together, they are estimated to weigh about twice the weight of the average human brain. Think about that.

They live in the gut and their job is to digest food, synthesize vitamins and fight infection. What we are discovering is that their reach extends far beyond the gut, and all the way to the brain.

Studies over the last decade have identified the role of gut microbiome in maintaining certain brain functions such as mood, emotion and appetite. Research is increasingly pointing to the role it plays in psychiatric and neurological disorders such as anxiety, depression and autism. 

Researchers at the University of Oxford have found that taking probiotics has an effect on anxiety and depression by influencing the neuroendocrine stress response and by altering the way people process emotional information. 


The Study – What They Did

45 women between the ages of 18 to 45 took either a prebiotic or a placebo every day for three weeks.

(Probiotics consist of strains of good bacteria. They use prebiotics – carbohydrates they break down for nourishment – to multiply.)

At the end of the three weeks, the participants performed a number of tests involving positive and negative words, to measure how they processed emotional information. 

What They Found

Those who took the prebiotic paid less attention to negative information and more attention to positive information compared with those who took the placebo.

This effect is similar to that facilitated by antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication.

The prebiotic group also had lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) compared with the placebo group. High cortisol levels have been linked with anxiety and depression.


 Adding to the promise of the findings is research out of France that found that people who took probiotics for 30 days had reduced levels of somatisation (physical symptoms such as pain and tightness that are brought on by psychological distress), depression, anger-hostility and anxiety.

Early evidence for a gut-brain connection came from a study led by Dr Kirsten Tillisch of UCLA’s School of Medicine.

In their study, women who ate probiotic yoghurt (containing containing probiotic strains such as Bifidobacterium animalis, Streptococcus thermophiles, and Lactobacillus bulgaricus) twice a day for a month showed alterations in brain function, particularly in the brain’s response to the environment.

This was compared to women who ate a dairy product without any living bacteria and another group who ate no dairy products.

Brain scans revealed that those who took the probiotics had reduced activity in the area of the  brain involved in processing emotions.

Tillisch explains, ‘When we consider the implications of the work, the old sayings, ‘you are what you eat’ and ‘gut feelings’ take on new meaning.’

‘Time and time again, we hear from patients that they never felt depressed or anxious until they started experiencing problems with the gut.

Though probiotic cocktails aren’t likely to replace conventional treatments any time soon, there is compelling evidence to suggest great potential in using them as part of a treatment or management plan for anxiety or depression. 

39 Comments

Hlan

So, I have anxiety disorder, depression, IBS, acid reflux, gerd and I recently had thyroid cancer that had spread to my lymph nodes, so I had to have radiation treatment. Before they found the cancer, I had to pass 16 kidney stones for them to realize I was producing too much calcium. I have recently been seeing a nephrologist for kidney failure, bc since my surgeries, my remaining 2 parathyroids have started to heal & work again, so the calcium they’ve been producing on top of the calcium I’ve been taking was causing my kidneys to shut down. Long story short… I have had every test done under the sun, bc I just don’t feel good, my stomach is always in disarray. I have currently looked into a homeopathic treatment & she took me off of several of the meds the doctors had me on, & had me start drinking aquafloura for my stomach. Which has helped some. I just need some relief. This article is some help, but still not resolution.

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Stephanie

Hi, I had gerd, gastritis, ibs/depression & started taking a good quality organic tumeric supplement & did Accupuncture initially 3 times a week to reduce as symptoms got less. These reduce inflamation in the body, & activate PNS instead of being in fight or flight,then including a balanced diet & pre/pro/postbiotics is also important. As per great article.
Many of us are also Magnesium deficient, Mg is essential in over 300 chemical reactions in the body.
Taking a supplement of that too.
After aprox 8-12mths I’ve introduced most foods back(except lactose milk) & have very limited if any symptoms.

Naturally activating/improving your vagal tone may help too; google how to naturally improve vagal tone.
Good luck:)

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Michelle

This article is great! I have had anxiety and chronic fatigue since my early teens. Dr’s couldn’t figure out why, so basically I just needed to learn to live with it. a few months ago I was introduced to Plexus to try help with my energy. And it has! But it also really helped with my anxiety! I couldn’t believe it! I started researching why, and this is exactly it! Gut healing! It includes fantastic pre and probiotic supplements along with an all natural detoxer, including magnesium and vit C! check it out! Plexus worldwide.com! If you do, and want to know more, please email me I would love to share and help you!

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Jane

I’ve been brewing kombucha tea and making my own homemade yogurt and kimchi for a few months now – I just need my daughter to actually believe the science stuff and start to eat and drink this stuff.
I’m showing her this article because right now, I think she thinks I’m making it up!

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J

People have been using the GAPS diet (“Gut and Psychology Syndrome”) for better mental health with great success! Our family used it to fix some food intolerances. Check it out!! Gut flora (bacteria, yeast, etc.) has a huge influence on how our brains function.

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Karen Young

Yes you’re absolutely right. The way to sustain probiotics is with probiotics. Prebiotics are food for probiotics. Sources of probiotics include whole grains, peas, avocado and apple cider vinegar.

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Debi

When I read this article a while back (after binge-reading your articles in an effort to help my then 14 yr old!) I figured it couldnt hurt, so bought probiotics. Added them to her routine of Magnesium 400 mg (was recommended by her counselor) hoping it would give her a little boost and I have to say, it has changed her entire situation!!! I am now an avid fan of probiotics in teens with anxiety!! She now uses ALL the things in her “tool box” to keep her anxiety at bay (that I found on your website, like mindfulness, SmilingMind, etc!!) and is completely blowing our minds with her bravery! She is now on the drama team at church, is in student leadership, a team leader at youth camps, and does things (tubing down a river!) that she would have NEVER done before. I have to say, I can point clearly to your website for the information to help in redirecting her anxiety. Tummy aches (were daily) are now maybe once a month, and last an hour at most!!) I told you in a comment years ago when you first got on facebook that you should charge for this, I would pay….. a lot! It would be worth EVERY PENNY for our family! Bless you, Karen. You are simply amazing and I am one grateful Mama for your knowledge!!

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Tracie in Kansas

Gut health equates to brain health. Too bad so many mainstream doctors don’t understand…

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Palwasha

Spot on
When ever i take med for gut problems IBS they dont work whenever i take them with meds for depresion they do magic
My pains my moods i mean everythng seems better when i take these two toghtr
So if someone has IBS n their med not workin ask ur doc if he can add mild anti depressants with it n thn c in a week

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Fraser

The bacteria in our guts can vary tremendously from one person to another – my intuition is that what works for one person will not necessarily work for another, and treatment would depend on whether or not there are important bacteria which can only be obtained from the gut of another human being. There has been some interesting work in this field recently and I wonder if it is possible to look at the influence of probiotics in isolation without considering a person’s initial gut flora to start with?

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Mary Kelly

I healed my depression, anxiety, PTSD and IBS by following a highly probiotic diet called GAPS. Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride needs to get some credit: she has been promoting the gut brain connection for over 20 years, and has been healing kids with behavioral disorders by the thousands. The key for us was not just probiotics off the shelf but probiotics with huge variety (more than 6 strains).
So pleased to see this information getting some research to confirm what clinical studies have been saying for years (and have been derided for for years).

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Therese

Yes! Just picked up a book from Dr Campbell-McBride about GAPS diet from my mum, who has just been on the diet for a few weeks now. After decades of problems with her digestion/bowels, suspected IBS & a recent discovery that she carries a gene for coeliac disease (?), she is now feeling SO much better, both physically & mentally. She also suffered anxiety & mild depression over the years. The diet has been a big adjustment though, not easy, but worth it…My teenage daughter is on meds now for anxiety & depression and, although I am very doubtful that she will consider the diet in its entirety, I am hoping she might take a probiotic supplement. My mum had been recommending this for a long time, so good to hear others have benefited (or why they haven’t)

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Trish

Hi there
Interesting stuff, thank you.
My husband is allergic to penicillin, so can’t eat probiotic yoghurt. Any suggestions re alternatives which could achieve the same effect with regard to depression?

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Hey Sigmund

Trish I would really encourage you to speak with a naturopath, doctor or pharmacist. They should be able to set you on track with this and hopefully help you to find something for your husband that will support his gut health without triggering any negative side effects.

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Lara

A fantastic article…thank you for posting! Prebiotics and probiotics are saving me from years of anxiety and depression. Note that many probiotics aren’t strong enough and won’t colonise in the gut, especially if you suffer from leaky gut (which most of us do). To heal leaky gut in as little as 2 months, PLEASE research ‘bovine colostrum’ on the Net. It also serves as the best prebiotic out there. (The brand is vital. Two of the best are Immune Tree and Synertek.) Nothing has every made such a difference to my health – and anxiety/depression – as colostrum. Hope and blessings.

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Josie

Oh! I had heard of bovine colostrum before but had completely forgotten about it. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

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Cherie

I have recently started drinking kombucha and kefir amazing probiotics in them. I am diagnosed bipolar 2 disorder and have noticed an emense change in how i feel better than the anti depressant medication!!

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Britt

I also have had anxiety and gut issues (IBS C ) for most of my life. I am now paleo AIP and that has helped but not solved it. I tried probiotics (biokult) for two months and noticed no difference. I then switched to prescript assist and they made me feel really weird and more anxious. Any ideas ? What would be considered a mild probiotic to help me ? Biokult didn’t work. I’m a little lost. Thanks

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Hey Sigmund

I would really suggest working closely with a naturopath. There are so many different bacteria in the gut and it may depend on the type of probiotic you use. It is also important to introduce the change slowly. When probiotics kill of pathogens, they release toxins. It is these toxins that are likely to be already contributing to the symptoms. If probiotics are introduced too much too soon, the release of toxins will increase suddenly and may potentially lead to to a worsening of the symptoms. This may have been why you felt worse when you switched. Don’t give up though – there is no one size fits all for this, which is why a naturopath may be the way to go.

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Kelly

I started using a great probiotic about a year ago and have noticed amazing results without any weird side effects. I wasn’t even really aware of the benefits of probiotics until then but I don’t go a day without it now. I’d love to share more with you if you’re interested.

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Marielle

I have struggle with gut(lack of urge to go) and anxiety for decades. With no relief. Tried so many things with no luck. Its like my brain in times of anxiety just turns my digestion off and then more anxiety is created by not going. Its this horrible vicious cycle with no relief. Tried probiotics but caused me such pain. Any thoughts/suggestions. Been to western Dr(s) and naturopath. Always address diet but no luck as eat clean and exercise daily.

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Hey Sigmund

Marielle what you are describing about your your anxiety and digestive issues is not unusual. With probiotics is it important not to have a massive dose too quickly as it can make symptoms worse. This is because when probiotics kill the pathogens in your gut, the pathogens release toxins. It is possibly these toxins that are causing your symptoms, and when there is a surge of them they will initially make your symptoms worse. It is impossible for me to say with any certainty, but it might be one track to investigate if other possible causes have been investigated and have lead nowhere. I would suggest speaking to another naturopath or doctor who can discuss other options or who can guide you through a more gentle introduction of probiotics.

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Natalie

Marielle, something else to consider. Some probiotic blends contain beneficial yeasts (and other organisms), like saccharomyces boulardii, that you don’t find in a lot of supplements. For people with yeast sensitivity like myself ingesting s. boulardii can raise inflammation in the body due to an immune response to the yeast (or other offending organisms/ingredients). Raised levels of inflammation can affect your mood negatively. Point being, if you are sensitive to something in your probiotic blend, it can make you feel worse. It’s not necessarily that the probiotics are bad or don’t work for you, but you may need to try a different one. For the record, Prescript Assist has several saccharomyces organisms in it as well as many other soil-based organisms that are different from the “usual” ones you would find in most supplements. It seems to work very well for some people, and not so well for others. I would guess this is probably due to sensitivities which would vary from person to person. These things can be determined through testing. Good luck!

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Natalie

Sorry, my last comment was directed at Britt, below. My mistake. Think I need to get some coffee in me.

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Charles brown

I have struggled with stomach problems and anxiety for over 25 years. I started probiotics about two months ago and it has made a world of difference in my thought pattern, anxiety, mood and gut distress. I have always said that all my issues started in my gut and sure enough the research is proving me right. Now if we can only get the Doctors on board with this new research discovery.

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Hey Sigmund

Intuition is pretty amazing isn’t it. I’m pleased you’re finally finding some relief. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s important and you never know who will be helping.

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Donna

I have been fighting with PTSD, depression and anxiety most of my life I take 4 different medications for it. This sounds to good to be true.

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Hey Sigmund

It’s certainly not a quick fix but there is a lot of research looking at the connection. Have a chat to your doctor about it, and remember that if you’re on medication it’s always important not to stop taking it without medical supervision.

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Linda

You use both probiotics and prebiotics – is this a typo, or are they two different things? Where would a person find either or both of these, and is it okay to just take/eat them yourself or does a doctor need to be consulted?

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heysigmund

Prebiotics are the food for probiotics (I know – it took me a bit to get my head around it!) I just get them from my pharmacy in the supplements section. The first time I bought them, I spoke to the pharmacist who was very well-informed about the research, so hopefully other pharmacists will be too. Hope that helps.

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Rachael

But you need a good quality Pro biotic supplement. Some companies sell probiotics that aren’t live, they’re dead. There’s a good Stuff You Should Know podcast about this.

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Marlene Blake

Really need the knowledge to help understand how my daughter feels i am a great listener but i never have the answers to help her she was diagnosed last year. All of her communication now is about her anxiety and depression it has control of all of us right now we don’t know how to help her switch that feeling off.

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heysigmund

It can be so hard to know what to say and the truth is there is no ‘right thing’.Is your daughter seeing a counsellor? Did you have a look under the depression tab – there are other articles there that might help. You’ll find it under ‘Being Human’, then ‘Depression’. Exercise has been found to have the same effect on the brain as antidepressants and it’s also important for anxiety – it’s a natural end to the fight or flight response and is protective as well. If she’s depressed it’s likely that she won’t feel like going but if you can go with her for a walk that would be so good for her. Here is the link to the article just in case you haven’t read it yet https://www.heysigmund.com/fighting-depression/ . It really does make a difference. You’re doing the right thing just by being there.

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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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