Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Anxiety: A doctor's explanation

Two years ago, we took our girls to an outdoor summer concert. It was one of those beautiful, balmy evenings and our girls were dancing and laughing with friends as the sun began to set. As our younger daughter was happily dancing, a look of panic came across my older daughter's face. She realized it was nearing bedtime and she wasn't home. Despite efforts to calm her, she insisted she leave immediately. As we walked the three blocks home she cried and panicked, unable to catch her breath. It was 7:35 at night, five minutes past her usual bedtime.

Most parenting books insist on providing children with a routine because most children thrive on consistency, but this goes beyond routine. This is anxiety in the form of rigid behavior. It pops up at the most inconvenient times; school, test-taking, social situations, any unusual circumstances.

While Ronald Rapee's, Helping Your Anxious Child workbook has helped us make strides in this area, I'm always seeking more information on the topic, so two weeks ago, I attended a lecture by Daniel Siegel, author of The Whole-Brain Child.

His talk discussed the science behind anxiety, something I had not heard before. There are two main parts of your brain that handle anxiety: amygdala and hippocampus. When you are in an anxiety-producing situation, your amygdala, speaking the voice of your nervous system, activates first. So that stomachache, heart-pumping, uneasy feeling are all produced by the amygdala. As soon as the amygdala turns on, it activates the hippocampus, which stores memory and emotion. Because our amygdala is influencing our emotions and memory, science proves so much of what we remember about anxious experiences is totally inaccurate. So interesting, right?

Dr. Siegel says sleep, exercise and knowledge are important factors. It's important not to respond to anxiety with worry or explain that the amygdala is taking over. Ha. My daughter needs less stimulation, not more. A hug has defused many episodes for us, but Dr. Siegel prescribes a brief lesson in anxiety. That explanation will help open her thoughts on the brain's response, encouraging more flexible and optimistic thinking.

But the best thing you can teach your child is relaxation of the body. A child can do this by focusing on the breath. Only when the body is relaxed, can you train the thoughts of the hippocampus. So as the sun set over that summer concert, but before complete panic set in, my daughter could have found her breath and taken control over how she thought and felt (and would ultimately remember) missing her bedtime for that special circumstance. And imagine how quickly those positive feelings induce more positive feelings and experiences. We have the power to change our brains and our brains have the power to change our experiences. Mind blown; literally.

So if a worrisome problem is encountered and you don't react with anxious symptoms, does your brain perceive it as a "problem" at all? I think not. And anxiety or not, having that ability to change your perception of a problem is invaluable in many of life's most challenging situations.

Do you or your children suffer from anxiety? How do you cope?  

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