The Power in the way we Think

Posts tagged ‘fear’

Stress and Children

Kids experience stress just as much as the rest of us.

And sometimes more intensely than the rest of us.

I hope you’re all wondering why this is, because I’m about to share it with you.

It all originates in the field of child development. Or more specifically, brain development. When I began this series on stress we talked about the Triune Brain. We discussed how the brain processes stress and a little bit about the ages at which the different parts of the brain develop.

I’d like to discuss these age differences in a little more detail.

When we are born the only part of the brain to be fully developed is the brain stem, which is responsible for our physiological responses such as breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. If this part of the brain is damaged in some way, your survival may be threatened and it is possible that you would be looking at support from machines to stay alive. The brain stem is also responsible for the physiological aspects of the stress response – elevating the heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure.

The limbic region is the next part of the brain to develop, usually completed at around 3-5 years of age. This controls our emotions. The amygdala lives in the limbic region and if you remember back to my previous post on this, its job is to make an assessment about whether your life is at threat. So when we perceive our life to be in danger, our emotions, such as fear and anxiety, are activated.

The final part of the brain to develop is the neocortex, which is responsible for our ability to think, reason and solve problems. This begins to develop properly in our teens but isn’t completely developed until we reach our mid 20’s. When our stress response is activated, the blood flow to the neocortex is reduced, and therefore our ability to think is impaired.

Here is a simple diagram that shows this relationship.

triune brain 4

Let’s think about these facts in relation to children. As adults, when we become stressed we can sometimes use our reasoning ability to calm this response and get back to our balanced state (homeostasis). Remember though, by the time we reach our mid 20’s, all 3 areas of the brain are fully developed. This means that the sizes of the limbic region and the neocortex are somewhat even, thereby making it easier to reason things out when we’re stressed.

Children, however, do not have this. Because of their brain development, their limbic region and neocortex are different sizes, which means that their emotions have much more control than their thinking and reasoning ability. So when their stress response is activated, they are unable to down-regulate, or calm the response. This is not only due to the size difference, but also because the blood flow to the neocortex is diminished. So they have all these emotions running through their mind and body, but are unable to use logic to bring themselves back to a place of balance.

I hope this makes sense, because it is an integral part of why children’s behaviour can become volatile at the smallest things.

Sometimes their parents or another adult is able to “talk them down”, particularly if they combine some simple breathing techniques with ‘loaning’ out some logic or reasoning power. But sometimes the stress response is engaged to such an extent that the only way to calm it is to allow it to burn itself out. In this way kids are able to burn off any adrenalin with physical activity. Most of the time you’ll probably find this happen with the use of some pretty intense tantrums, complete with throwing things, yelling, hitting and so on.

The key to helping your kids to manage their response comes by making them more aware of their body and the signals it gives out to indicate stress. Look for a post on this in the next few days. In the meantime, try reviewing an article I wrote back in August about some secret kids business. In it I discuss how kids can learn to manage their own self-care by creating a box in which to keep some special things to help them calm down.

A special note for children who have experienced trauma or abuse, particularly at an early age. Neurobiological research has found that these kids often have an amygdala that is enlarged. This means that it is much more easily activated. And this in turn means that there is a larger difference in size between the limbic region and the neocortex, making it even more difficult to regulate their emotions. For these kids (well, for all kids, but especially for these ones), the key is safety and security. More than anything else, they need to understand that they are safe. So the best thing you can do is to remain calm, firm and completely sure in your attempts to support them. As you work at calming their response, regulate your own breathing using the belly breathing techniques we have already discussed. We all know that children pick up on our energy and moods, so the calmer you become, the easier it will be to help regulate them. And please consider seeking psychological support for these kids. Not only can a professional teach them how to regulate their emotions, they can work with you on specific strategies to use with them.

mirror neurons


As the first condition to be covered in our focus on mental health, I have enlisted the assistance of one of my friends and colleagues to talk about anxiety. In this post she gives some great, easy to understand information about it and some awesome tips on how to work with it. In the next post she will share her own personal journey with anxiety and how it has impacted on her daily living. You can find a short bio on Sam below her post.

mental health challenge thoughts

You are a cave-man.  You are just dozing off for the night in your cave while your precious family sleep soundly nearby.  You feel sleepy and relaxed.  Suddenly you hear a low growl coming from outside the cave.  Your ears prick up immediately, you eyes peer out into the darkness … what is it?!  Is it a sabre-tooth tiger?  Can it smell your scent?  Will it attack you?  How can you protect your precious family?  Your heart starts racing, your palms start sweating, your mind is running through all your available options simultaneously – where is your nearest weapon?  Should you fight?  Should you wake your family to run and hide?

saber toothed tiger

Are you my next meal?!?!

This is the fight-or-flight response in primitive man and it is the same response we modern humans experience whenever we feel threatened or fearful.  This is anxiety.

Anxiety is a very common experience for most of us.  It is our survival instinct.  It is a reaction that is both psychological and physical. And it is therefore completely normal.

For example, you might be planning on taking a holiday soon and travelling by aeroplane.  You really want to go but you are feeling anxious about the flight.  You watched a show recently that was about a plane crash.  You keep imagining the worst case scenario in your mind.  It is your thoughts that are causing your anxiety.  But the response is a physiological one.  When you lie in bed at night worrying about flying your body can’t relax.  Your heart beats faster, you feel sick in the stomach and you cannot settle into sleep.

Many things can trigger anxiety: exams, public speaking, being laughed at (it is common to dream about turning up to school

Do I really have to get up in front of people?

Do I really have to get up in front of people?

naked!), job interviews, performance appraisals, being vulnerable, humiliated, rejected or exposed.

Anxiety can often play a positive role in our lives.  For example, if I get a text from a friend saying they will be popping by in 5 minutes, my anxiety about how they might judge me when they see how messy my house is, motivates me to run around tidying up, whilst adrenaline pumps through my body.  Even though for 3 hours prior to this I’ve been lying on the couch watching telly!  My anxiety just got my house looking decent in record time!

However, excessive worrying can negatively impact our daily lives.  We can suffer from generalised anxiety disorder, where our constant worrying can almost paralyse us.  For example, we cancel our overseas holiday because our anxious thoughts about flying become all-consuming.  Or we miss school on the day of our speech, because we have made ourselves so sick over the fear of stuffing up in front of our classmates and teacher that we are sweating, crying and shaking.  Or we pretend we are not home when our friend wants to pop over, because 5 minutes is just not enough time to feel everything is good enough.

Perfectionism is a personality trait that can feed anxiety, because it is a constant state of never feeling good enough.  No one can ever achieve ‘perfection’ so constantly measuring ourselves against some unrealistic ideal is going to cause a LOT of stress.  It has been said that anxiety is the difference between who you are and who you think you should be.  If we could accept ourselves as we are, we would feel calmer and less anxious.

Anxiety can also result in panic attacks, where the physiological response to the feared situation can be so overwhelming that it anxiety girlresults in chest pain and/or hyperventilation.  If you suffer from anxiety and/or panic attacks, empower yourself with knowledge and strategies.  Start by talking to an understanding GP or psychologist or read up on symptoms and treatment.  If you know you are susceptible, learn some strategies and breathing techniques that work for you.  The main thing is to be able to identify the signs in yourself and try to stop yourself from spiralling out of control – slow your breathing down, bring yourself back to the present and challenge your irrational thoughts.

Some people simplify the concept of anxiety as worrying about the future (and depression as sadly lamenting the past).  A lot of the treatment for anxiety (and depression) focuses on mindfulness, focussing on the present and self-acceptance.  Trying to live in the moment and be grateful for what you have (rather than what you don’t have) can help.

Having anxiety can stop us from rolling with the punches and living our lives to the full.  Sometimes there can be physical conditions underlying anxiety also.  So it is worth going to your GP and getting some advice.  It may end up being a combination of things: perhaps some medical interventions to sort out any imbalances as well as some strategies and information from books, online research, a psychologist or counsellor.  Throw in some yoga and meditation to really reclaim your calmness!

mickey mouse yoga

Most importantly of all, dream big.  Life is short, so take some time, set some personal goals and go for it!  Don’t let anxiety paralyse you and stop you from living your life to the full.  Get some support to put it back in its place.

Meet Sam

My name is Sam and I am a 39-year-old mum of two and a counsellor.  I support carers who care for a loved one with a mental sam bioillness or developmental disorder.  I have a special interest in supporting parents and carers of children with autism and Asperger’s.  I am also experienced in counselling and supporting clients who have suffered sexual assault, complex trauma, PTSD, grief, depression and anxiety.

Working with shame.


You’ve been unfriended: 5 tips for unpacking shame.

I read this article on the Rebelle Society website today and found it very helpful. I often use these tips with my clients. Bring the feelings closer to you, don’t fight with them, monitor them, bring them closer to you, breathe, look for the positive and put things in perspective.

There are some great great tips here. Have a read. If you have some comments or questions please feel free to voice them, I would love to hear them.


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