Our brains and bodies are geared up to protect us should we face a real threat. Imagine you are stepping out to cross the road, thinking it is clear of traffic, and a car travelling at a fast speed appears out of nowhere. What happens? Without even thinking about it, you jump back out of the way. Your heart is pounding, you feel out of breath and hot and maybe even a bit nauseous. Only afterwards do you try to make sense of what just happened (and maybe feel cross towards the driver!).
This is our brain’s alarm system and is extremely important in keeping us safe. This alarm system is a part of our brain that we share with all animals and is one of the first parts to develop in utero. However, human beings have evolved to have a ‘new brain’ which is responsible for higher order functions such as thinking, reasoning, planning and imagining what is going on in the minds of others. When the new brain and old brain work well together, the new brain works out that the car has passed, there are no more cars coming and we are safe. Our heart rate returns to normal and we go about our day. The problem is that sometimes our new brain can cause us some problems because of how clever it is! In the example above, it might think “wow, roads are really dangerous! I am sure to be hurt if I try to cross again!”. This tells your old brain that there is still a threat, even though there isn’t. Your heart continues to pound and you might decide the best thing to do is to avoid roads completely. Imagine the impact on your life?
This is just a small example of how anxiety can take hold. It is not our fault. Our brains are geared up to keep us safe. That is what we have been born with and share with all other people. But there are things we can do to let our old brains know we are safe and that is doesn’t need to be sounding the alarm so constantly.
In this article I am going to offer some practical things you can do with your children to support them with this.
Naming the feeling
Sometimes our children will have worries that they find it hard to share face to face. Make a worry box! You can have lots of fun with this. Use any box (a shoe box works well) and decorate it together. Leave some paper and a pencil next to it and encourage your child to write down and post their worries. Have a regular time to go through the box together for them to share any worries they have had. Notice that some worries are no longer scary after a while, some of the worries might be easily solved and some might just feel better after being shared.