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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When you can’t cut out (their worries), add in (what they need for felt safety). 

Rather than focusing on what we need them to do, shift the focus to what we can do. Make the environment as safe as we can (add in another safe adult), and have so much certainty that they can do this, they can borrow what they need and wrap it around themselves again and again and again.

You already do this when they have to do things that don’t want to do, but which you know are important - brushing their teeth, going to the dentist, not eating ice cream for dinner (too often). The key for living bravely is to also recognise that so many of the things that drive anxiety are equally important. 

We also need to ask, as their important adults - ‘Is this scary safe or scary dangerous?’ ‘Do I move them forward into this or protect them from it?’♥️
The need to feel connected to, and seen by our people is instinctive. 

THE FIX: Add in micro-connections to let them feel you seeing them, loving them, connecting with them, enjoying them:

‘I love being your mum.’
‘I love being your dad.’
‘I missed you today.’
‘I can’t wait to hang out with you at bedtime 
and read a story together.’

Or smiling at them, playing with them, 
sharing something funny, noticing something about them, ‘remembering when...’ with them.

And our adult loves need the same, as we need the same from them.♥️
Our kids need the same thing we do: to feel safe and loved through all feelings not just the convenient ones.

Gosh it’s hard though. I’ve never lost my (thinking) mind as much at anyone as I have with the people I love most in this world.

We’re human, not bricks, and even though we’re parents we still feel it big sometimes. Sometimes these feelings make it hard for us to be the people we want to be for our loves.

That’s the truth of it, and that’s the duality of being a parent. We love and we fury. We want to connect and we want to pull away. We hold it all together and sometimes we can’t.

None of this is about perfection. It’s about being human, and the best humans feel, argue, fight, reconnect, own our ‘stuff’. We keep working on growing and being more of our everythingness, just in kinder ways.

If we get it wrong, which we will, that’s okay. What’s important is the repair - as soon as we can and not selling it as their fault. Our reaction is our responsibility, not theirs. This might sound like, ‘I’m really sorry I yelled. You didn’t deserve that. I really want to hear what you have to say. Can we try again?’

Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. What it means is adding warmth to the boundary. One without the other will feel unsafe - for them, us, and others.

This means making sure that we’ve claimed responsibility- the ability to respond to what’s happening. It doesn’t mean blame. It means recognising that when a young person is feeling big, they don’t have the resources to lead out of the turmoil, so we have to lead them out - not push them out.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, shift the focus to what we can do to bring felt safety and calm back into the space.

THEN when they’re calm talk about what’s happened, the repair, and what to do next time.

Discipline means ‘to teach’, not to punish. They will learn best when they are connected to you. Maybe there is a need for consequences, but these must be about repair and restoration. Punishment is pointless, harmful, and outdated.

Hold the boundary, add warmth. Don’t ask them to do WHEN they can’t do. Wait until they can hear you and work on what’s needed. There’s no hurry.♥️
Recently I chatted with @rebeccasparrow72 , host of ABC Listen’s brilliant podcast, ‘Parental as Anything: Teens’. I loved this chat. Bec asked all the questions that let us crack the topic right open. Our conversation was in response to a listener’s question, that I expect will be familiar to many parents in many homes. Have a listen here:
https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/parental-as-anything-with-maggie-dent/how-can-i-help-my-anxious-teen/104035562
School refusal is escalating. Something that’s troubling me is the use of the word ‘school can’t’ when talking about kids.

Stay with me.

First, let’s be clear: school refusal isn’t about won’t. It’s about can’t. Not truly can’t but felt can’t. It’s about anxiety making school feel so unsafe for a child, avoidance feels like the only option.

Here’s the problem. Language is powerful, and when we put ‘can’t’ onto a child, it tells a deficiency story about the child.

But school refusal isn’t about the child.
It’s about the environment not feeling safe enough right now, or separation from a parent not feeling safe enough right now. The ‘can’t’ isn’t about the child. It’s about an environment that can’t support the need for felt safety - yet.

This can happen in even the most loving, supportive schools. All schools are full of anxiety triggers. They need to be because anything new, hard, brave, growthful will always come with potential threats - maybe failure, judgement, shame. Even if these are so unlikely, the brain won’t care. All it will read is ‘danger’.

Of course sometimes school actually isn’t safe. Maybe peer relationships are tricky. Maybe teachers are shouty and still using outdated ways to manage behaviour. Maybe sensory needs aren’t met.

Most of the time though it’s not actual threat but ’felt threat’.

The deficiency isn’t with the child. It’s with the environment. The question isn’t how do we get rid of their anxiety. It’s how do we make the environment feel safe enough so they can feel supported enough to handle the discomfort of their anxiety.

We can throw all the resources we want at the child, but:

- if the parent doesn’t believe the child is safe enough, cared for enough, capable enough; or

- if school can’t provide enough felt safety for the child (sensory accommodations, safe peer relationships, at least one predictable adult the child feels safe with and cared for by),

that child will not feel safe enough.

To help kids feel safe and happy at school, we have to recognise that it’s the environment that needs changing, not the child. This doesn’t mean the environment is wrong. It’s about making it feel more right for this child.♥️

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