Anxiety in children and teens can make everyone feel helpless. It can come from anywhere and nowhere, and often it makes no sense at all. This is because anxiety is a primitive, instinctive response, not a rational one. Anxiety is driven by a strong, beautiful, healthy brain that is doing exactly what brains are meant to do – protect us from threat. Sometimes though, they can work a little too hard and have us avoiding the things that we’d be better moving towards.
The part of the brain that keeps us safe from threat is the amygdala. Since the beginning of humans, the amygdala’s job has been to scan the environment for threat, and make lightning-quick decisions about whether to avoid or approach. It does this brilliantly. In less than one tenth of a second, the amygdala will decide whether something is a threat, and whether we should approach it or avoid it. This is much faster than the time it takes our brains to create a conscious thought or feeling, and is why anxiety can feel as though it has come from nowhere.
But what if there actually is nothing to worry about?
If the amygdala decides there is a threat, it will surge the body with fight or flight neurochemicals. This can send the ‘thinking brain’ offline, but there is a good reason for this. Brains are ‘do-ers’ before they’re thinkers (but they are excellent at both) so they’ll act first to get us safe, then decide later whether or not the response was actually necessary. The ‘thinking brain’ gets sent offline so it doesn’t get in the way of a quick response by organising a committee meeting about possible strategies. This means that the part of the brain that can receive rational information, such as ‘there’s nothing to worry about’, has been told by the amygdala to shush – so that’s exactly what it does.
By then, the fight or flight neurochemicals are surging through your child’s body as though they have nowhere else to be. The feelings that come with this feel awful and will fuel anxious thoughts, (‘I feel as though something bad is going to happen, so I think something bad might happen’), which will fuel anxious behaviour – avoidance (flight) or aggression (fight).
Humans … We’re wired to love them and be wary of them.
The fight or flight response worked hard for us way back when our main threats were predators who wanted us to be dinner, or other humans who wanted to steal dinner. It would have been easier to make a call on which animals were best avoided. Our ancestors would have known just by looking that some animals that would be no threat at all, and some would be more dangerous. With other humans though, this would have been more difficult. The friendly ones and the unfriendly ones would have looked the same – like humans. It would have been sensible to be wary of anyone unfamiliar, but even the familiar ones would have posed a potential threat. In a small tribe, with a limited number of potential mates or social connections, the consequences of rejection or exclusion could have been potentially catastrophic.
We have been learning to be wary of humans since the beginning of humans. Fast forward several thousand years, and it’s not surprising that for our kids and teens, social situations can fuel anxiety like nothing else. These can include school, social gatherings, soccer, art club, trying out for the school play, a sleepover – or anything else that comes with other humans and the potential for embarrassment, humiliation, separation, exclusion, or rejection.
But their favourite people can make them braver.
Think of the brain as having three sections, back, middle, front. At the very back is the oldest, most primitive part of our brain. It’s responsible for our basic functions – blood pressure, heartbeat, breathing – the things that keep us alive. Next, in the middle, is the ’emotional brain’. This is where the amygdala lives. It’s the instinctive, impulsive part of the brain that is involved in anxiety and emotion. Finally, at the front is the ‘thinking brain’, the home of the pre-frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that can receive rational information, plan, consider consequences, exercise self-control, problem-solve, and calm big emotions.
We need the three parts of the brain to be connected and work together, as a team. During anxiety though, the amygdala pulls rank and takes over. It shuts down the thinking brain and hijacks the primitive brain, organising the body to increase heart rate, shallow breathe, increase blood pressure. When we are actually under threat, having the amygdala in charge is what we want, because it will be laser-focussed on getting us safe. The problem is when it takes over when it doesn’t need to.
To bring back calm and to open the way to brave behaviour, we need to get the three parts of the brain connected and working together again. This has to happen from the back to the front. We have to respond to the primitive brain first, then the emotional brain, then the thinking brain. Think of it like building a bridge – there are no shortcuts and we can’t change the order. First we have to prepare the ground (reset the physiology), then we lay the foundations (open the way for brave behaviour with warmth, validation, connection), then we build the structure on top of that (encourage brave behaviour, plan, explore what’s needed). If we move to one stage before an earlier stage has happened, the structure won’t be solid, and will be likely to collapse.
Often, when our children or teens are in the thick of anxiety, we respond to the thinking brain first with rational information such as, ‘there’s nothing to worry about’. This is completely understandable, but it just won’t work. The thinking brain needs the backing of the other two parts to do its job effectively. An anxious brain is a mighty powerful brain, so it’s important to work with it, rather than against it. Here’s how to do that.
First, respond to the ‘primitive brain’, at the back.
Strong, slow, steady. ‘Breathe.’
Re-engage the primitive brain by encouraging strong, steady breathing. This will lower blood pressure and heart rate, and bring brain waves to a more relaxed state. Breath is our most basic and most powerful support. When breathing is strong and steady, so are we, but it’s the first to go when anxiety hits.
During anxiety, breathing changes from strong, steady breathing to short, sharp breathing. This is how it’s meant to happen, and a sign that a powerful, magnificent brain is working as it should. The brain wants the body to stop using energy on deep, strong breathing, in case it’s needed for fight or flight. When breathing changes to short sharp breaths, this begins the cascade of physiological changes connected to the fight or flight response. These changes are why anxiety feels the way it does. They include:
- feeling puffed and breathless (because of short breathing),
- dizzy and confused (because of the change in the balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen),
- a racey, pounding heart (because it’s pumping the neurochemical fuel around the body for fight or flight),
- tight, wobbly muscles (fuel is sent to arms so they can fight or legs so they can flee),
- clammy, sweaty (the body cools itself down in case it has to fight or flee),
- nausea, butterflies (digestion shuts down temporarily to save energy for fight or flight),
These symptoms are completely normal, and completely safe. Bodies and brains have been doing anxiety for a while, and they know exactly what they’re doing – but it can feel awful. Strong, steady breathing will start to neutralise the neurochemical surge and turn around the physiological symptoms. Something to keep in mind though, is that during anxiety, the brain is too busy to do things that don’t feel familiar. To make strong, steady breathing a more available response, encourage your child to practise when they are calm. Here are two ways to do that:
Hot Cocoa Breathing: ‘Pretend you have a mug of hot cocoa in your hands. Smell the warm chocolatey smell for three, hold it for one, blow it cool for three, hold it for one. Repeat three or four times.’
Figure 8 Breathing: This technique is especially good for teens because they can access it anywhere, anytime, and nobody else will have any idea. It combines touch and breath, which is a powerful combo. Anxiety feels flighty, and touch during anxiety can feel comforting and grounding. (It’s also something you can do to them if they like being touched.) Have them draw a figure 8 on their skin (arm, leg, back – wherever feels lovely) with their index finger. For the first half of the figure 8, ask them breathe in for three. When they get to the middle, hold for one. Then, for the second half of the figure 8, breathe out for three. Repeat three or four times.
Then, the ’emotional brain’ in the middle.
Touch, validation, warmth. ‘I’m here. I see you.’
Next, we need to tap into the emotional brain and help it feel safe again. As much as we have been wired to be wary of some people, we’ve also been wired to feel safe and connected with others. One of the things that influences the amygdala’s decision about whether to avoid something or move bravely towards it is the release of oxytocin (the bonding hormone) into the medial region of the amygdala. This section of the amygdala is heavily involved in our reactions to other people, specifically whether to avoid them or move towards them. Sometimes avoidance is exactly the right move – not all people are safe – but sometimes the amygdala can hit the ‘stay away’ button unnecessarily. This can drive anxiety in any situation where there are people – school, unfamiliar or new situations, anything social.
Oxytocin is released when we feel close to someone we care about. The amygdala has receptors especially designed to receive oxytocin, and when it gets a juicy dose, the amygdala feels safer and calmer – which means less anxiety, less avoidance, more brave behaviour. When our kids and teens are in the thick of anxiety, touching them gently, putting your arm around them, being physically close to them, holding their hand (as long as they’re ok with touch) can facilitate a delivery of oxytocin directly to the medial amygdala. This will increase the feeling of connection to you and calm the amygdala, which will help your child feel safer. We humans feel safest, bravest and strongest when we’re close to our favourite humans.
Another function of the feeling brain is to recruit support. If you’re the support, let the amygdala know that it’s done its job, and support is here. Do this by acknowledging and validating the feelings you see in your child or teen. ‘I can see this feels big for you.’ ‘It looks as though you’re worried about walking into school by yourself. Do I have that right?’
And hello ‘thinking brain’ – we’ve missed you.
Move towards brave behaviour. ‘You can do this, gorgeous. I know you can.’
Now that you’ve delivered a delicious dose of oxytocin to your child’s medial amygdala, hopefully your child will be feeling calmer. This reduces the drive to avoid, and open the way for brave behaviour. Speak to the logical, calming, thinking brain by reminding them why they feel the way they do, asking them what they need, armouring them with brave thinking, and encouraging them towards brave behaviour. Connect with them by looking them in the eye (this also releases oxytocin) and gently and confidently moving them forward, ‘I know you can do this, gorgeous. I know you can.’
When dealing with anxiety, it’s important to start with the absolute belief that your child or teen has everything they need to be brave – because they do. Sometimes though, you’ll need to believe it enough for both of you. There will of course be times to let your child take comfort somewhere warm and bundled, but there will also be times to push them gently towards brave behaviour. One of the things that can make this tough for any parent, is that the gentlest nudge forward by you might not feel that gentle, for them or for you. When anxiety hits, the need for our kids to avoid situations can be monumental, but our belief in them can always be stronger. The question to ask yourself in these times is, ‘Will my response build their courage, or shrink it?’ When avoidance becomes their go-to response, it will shrink their world more than it deserves to be. When the magic of them is kept hidden away, it is a loss for all of us.
Brains learn from experience. If your child’s amygdala has been working a little too hard and has become a little overprotective, it might take time to ‘re-teach’ the amygdala to approach instead of avoid – but absolutely this can be done, and it’s so important. When you take away the option to avoid, there has to be something else put back in its place. Otherwise, the drive will be to go back to what’s familiar, which will be avoidance. That ‘something else’ is encouragement towards brave behaviour, or towards whatever it is they want to avoid.
And finally …
The move towards brave behaviour and away from anxiety is a process, and not always a smooth one. Our children and teens need us to see them and to hold a strong, steady space for them, but they also need us to believe in them and to sometimes lead the way. Because we can see around the corners that they can’t. And we can see their strength, and their resilience, and their courage. When their anxiety is screaming at that maternal or paternal need in you to keep them safe, ask, ‘Do I believe in them, or do I believe their anxiety?’ And always, of course, go gently. Building brave, beautiful humans takes time – and that’s okay, because they have plenty of it.