How to Use Your Plushie Amygdala to Feel Braver, Stronger, and Less Anxious

How to Use Your Plushie Amygdala (or any Plushie) to Promote Brave Behaviour

Things don’t feel so bad when they’re shared, and plushie amygdalae are the BEST listeners, excellent protectors, experts in brave behaviour, and superb breathing buddies. Here are just a few of the things you can do with them:

They are the BEST listeners. 

Plushie amygdalae love to listen. They’ll listen to your problems, what you did on the weekend, and why you think celery is a sly little beast that pushes its way into too many dinners. Your plushie will listen to anything. Talk to them about your worries, (they can handle anything), or when you’re sad, mad, jealous, when you’ve messed up, done something fabulous, and when you’re feeling like a rock star. Share your ideas, your fears, your wishes, your gripes and of course, if you make up a hilarious song while you’re in the shower, share that with them too. They’ll love it all. The best thing about plushies is that you can tell them anything – ANYTHING – and they’ll keep everything inside them where their secrets and precious things are kept. 

Why DOES talking help?

We humans have been talking about our problems since the beginning of humans. We don’t necessarily talk to find solutions – though that can be a lovely side-effect. We talk because when we do, we feel better. There’s a very good reason for this, and it’s all backed by science. Everything we do depends on the right and left sides of the brain working well on their own, as well as together. Sometimes though, one side will become more dominant. When feelings or problems feel overwhelming, it’s likely that the right side has taken over. Here’s how it works. The left side of the brain loves words and logic. It is also more associated with optimism. The right side of the brain is more about emotion. It also is designed to pay more attention to negative information, so it can be more associated with pessimism. This is because it’s more important for our survival that we notice threats than that we notice happy things. Big feelings (sadness, anxiety, anger) and overwhelm are a sign that the right side of the brain has taken over a little from the left. This is very normal – it happens to all of us – but without enough involvement from the left side of the brain, feelings and problems can feel overwhelming. When we talk, it brings in the left side of the brain. Talking about problems and your feelings helps the right side and the left side of the brain work more as a team – which is the best way for them to be. 

They can help you feel brave. (It’s their favourite thing to do actually.)

Your amygdala is like your own fierce warrior, there to protect you. Sometimes though, it can work a little too hard and it might try to protect you when there is no need. When your amygdala senses that there’s something it needs to protect you from, it switches on and surges you with a special body fuel to make you stronger, faster and more powerful so you can fight the threat or flee from it – and humiliation, embarrassment, being separated from someone you love, missing out on something important all count as threat to an amygdala that wants to keep you safe. The fight or flight response is great when there is a physical danger you need to fight or escape from, but if there’s no need to run and no need to fight, or if the threat is one that isn’t helped by fight or flight (such as humiliation etc) the special body fuel builds up and this is why anxiety feels the way it does. The great news is that this is very manageable – but it involves you being the boss of your brain and reminding your amygdala that you’re safe, and that you can do hard things. This is a really brave thing to do. Your amygdala is strong – but so are you. The absolute truth is – your amygdala wants you to be brave, and it knows you can be, but sometimes you’ll need to believe it enough for both of you. What are the words your amygdala needs to hear? Perhaps, ‘We can do this,’ or ‘Whatever happens, we’ll be okay,’ or ‘We can do hard things.’ Use those words for yourself when you need to feel brave. It’s exactly what your amygdala needs to hear. When you say them, your amygdala will hear, and it will help you be brave. You and your amydala are a seriously awesome team.

Big feelings. We all get them. But this can help.

When your amygdala thinks there is something is needs to protect you from, it will switch on and get you feeling your feels. Feelings are there for a really good reason, and anxiety has one of the best reasons of all – to keep us safe. Anxiety is a sign that your amygdala is getting you ready to fight a danger or run from it. When this happens, you might feel anxious, angry, or you might burst into tears for no reason. This is a sign that your brain is doing exactly what strong healthy brains do – warn you when something isn’t right to move you into action and keep you safe from harm. Here’s the thing – amygdalae are do-ers, not thinkers so you need to be the boss. Feeling your feels is a great thing to do, but it’s also important to make sure they don’t get too big for you. Imagine your plushie amygdala is feeling big feelings – maybe anxious, or sad, or angry. What would you say to calm it down? What would you say to help it relax and feel safe? Let those words be the words you say to yourself to find calm when your feelings feel big. Perhaps it’s just ‘shhh – relax. I’ve got this,’ or, ‘it’s okay – we’re safe – breathe.’ Whatever words feel good for you will be perfect words to calm your amygdala when your feels feel big.

As a breathing buddy. In. Out. Lovely.

Strong slow, steady breathing initiates the relaxation response, which is a powerful way to ease anxiety and to calm big feelings. Lay your amygdala on your belly. Breathe out, then in for 3, hold for one and out for 3. If your amygdala buddy moves up and down as you breathe, your breathing is perfect. The more you practice, the easier it will be to access strong, slow steady breathing when you need it.

Happy sleeps. Happy humans. Something to try.

As you fall asleep, snuggle the amygdala in close to you. Imagine that it’s falling asleep beside you. Let your movements be calm and gentle so as not to wake your sleeping buddy. Pay close attention to your breathing – feel the air move in and out of your body. Notice the feel of the amygdala beside you, and know that you are safe. This is a form of mindfulness which is a powerful way to strengthen the brain against anxiety and other big feelings.

Just to cuddle (And you’re NEVER too old or too cool for this!)

Because they’re soft and gorgeous and they’ll love it.

 

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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