Anxiety comes from a part of the brain called the amygdala. Amygdala is a tricky word, so I sometimes encourage students in my office to name it something else. We come up with all sorts of names: Worry Center, Protector, Alarm System, my BFF Amy (As in, Amy G. Dala. Twelve-year-olds are really funny sometimes.) Actually, the amygdala is pretty similar to a BFF in that it loves you tons and will do anything to protect you. That said, it’s also somewhat self-absorbed and tends to always assume the worst.
The amygdala’s one and only job is to constantly scan the environment for threats. When it senses something that might be a threat, it surges our bodies with the fuel (oxygen, adrenaline, and hormones) we need to either fight or flee that threat. This is super handy when a car swerves into your lane on the highway or a rabid dog is running toward your toddler. In those situations, the ability to act swiftly and without much thought is quite beneficial. However, the amygdala is not great at altering its response based on the type of threat at hand. It’s more like an ear-piercing smoke detector that goes off whether you have simply burnt toast (not a threat) or the whole kitchen has gone up in flames (probably more of a threat). It doesn’t know the difference, and it responds similarly despite the actual circumstances.
When our bodies don’t actually need to fight or flee, the fuel that was meant to help us can inadvertently hurt us. It churns around in our bodies, making it challenging to function normally. Our chest feels tight, our breathing quickens, and we might feel sick to our stomach. The fuel can also disrupt our ability to connect with other, more helpful parts of the brain like the hippocampus that uses experiences and memories to make sense of the world, and the pre-frontal cortex that reasons and rationalizes before drawing conclusions. Our bestie wants to do all the heavy lifting, but she really needs to let the rest of the crew weigh in. The result can be an overwhelming sense of fear or urgency, when realistically we only have some burnt toast on our hands. Let’s go back to the funny 12-year-old in my office and her Amy. G. Dala.
Trying to help an anxious child is no easy task. Even the most thoughtful and loving parents can unknowingly misstep when faced with a distraught child. These three rules of thumb might help:
1. Save reassuring words for later. When a child is in the throes of anxiety, it seems very logical to try to offer words of reassurance like, “This is going to be okay. There’s nothing to worry about.” It might also be tempting to list all of the reasons your child should feel okay about whatever it is that’s troubling him. However, remember that the fuel flooding your child’s body makes it very challenging to think clearly. The pre-frontal cortex has been hijacked by Amy. G. Dala, making it very difficult to connect to the more reasonable part of the brain. When this happens, the goal is to move the child out of fight or flee and into a calmer state. We can do this by tending to the child’s nervous system first. The calm, quiet presence of a trusted adult can send very important safety signals to the amygdala. Deep, purposeful breathing can help too. If the other humans around us seem calm, and if our breathing mimics a calm state, our amygdala starts to believe that it can relax a little. When this happens, a child is more likely to receive and accept words of reassurance.
2. Validate the emotion. Remember, the amygdala does not mess around. It fires whether the threat it perceives is real or not. And when it fires, it fires in pretty much the same way regardless of the circumstances. Even if we don’t understand the source of our child’s anxiety, we can still validate their emotions by saying something like, “You’re scared. I get it. I’ve been scared before, too.” Rest there. You don’t have to fix it right this minute. Dr. Dan Siegel is well-known for his tag line, “Name it to tame it.” Identifying an emotion by name helps a child reconnect with the thinking part of the brain, which in turn tells the amygdala to take a breather.
3. When it gets frustrating, stick to the science. You know what really fires up a parent’s amygdala? Feeling helpless when it comes to their anxious child. Sometimes that feeling of helplessness can lead to frustration, which can then unintentionally be projected onto the child. Try to avoid labeling kids by saying things like, “Why are you such a worrier?” Instead, find calm opportunities to help her understand what’s happening in her brain. The best way to have power over something is to first understand it. Anxiety can feel overwhelming and tricky to navigate. Remember, the amygdala is our great protector, but it doesn’t get to boss us around. By learning more about their brains, kids can learn how to take back some control over their anxiety.