Anxiety happens when a part of the brain, the amygdala, senses trouble. When it senses threat, real or imagined, it surges the body with hormones (including cortisol, the stress hormone) and adrenaline to make the body strong, fast and powerful. This is the fight or flight response and it has been keeping us alive for thousands of years. It’s what strong, healthy brains are meant to do.
Children who have anxiety issues usually have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a phobia, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). These conditions were once thought of as “adult” illnesses, but mental health workers are finding that they are increasingly prevalent in children who are under eighteen.
An anxious brain is a strong, healthy brain that is a little overprotective. It is more likely to sense threat and hit the panic button ‘just in case’. One of the awful things about anxiety is the way it launches without warning, and often without need, sending an unsuspecting body unnecessarily into fight or flight. For children with anxiety, any situation that is new, unfamiliar, difficult or stressful counts as a potential threat. The fight or flight response happens automatically and instantaneously, sending neurochemicals surging through their bodies, priming them for fight or flight.
The brain is made up of two hemispheres, the right and the left. The two sides are connected by a bundle of fibres called the corpus callosum. Communication between the right and the left happens along these fibres, but sometimes, as in during anxiety, the messages don’t flow smoothly.
Several parts of the brain are key actors in the production of fear and anxiety. Using brain imaging technology and neurochemical techniques, scientists have discovered that the amygdala and the hippocampus play significant roles in most anxiety disorders.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is believed to be a communications hub between the parts of the brain that process incoming sensory signals and the parts that interpret these signals. It can alert the rest of the brain that a threat is present and trigger a fear or anxiety response. The emotional memories stored in the central part of the amygdala may play a role in anxiety disorders involving very distinct fears, such as fears of dogs, spiders, or flying.
The hippocampus is the part of the brain that encodes threatening events into memories. Studies have shown that the hippocampus appears to be smaller in some people who were victims of child abuse or who served in military combat. Research will determine what causes this reduction in size and what role it plays in the flashbacks, deficits in explicit memory, and fragmented memories of the traumatic event.
In addition, certain parts of the brain become dominant and drive behaviour. This is evidence of a strong, healthy brain switching into survival mode, but when it happens too much or unnecessarily, it feels awful. Responses become rigid – the response to dangerous situations also becomes the response to situations that aren’t dangerous at all.
For example – The left brain loves logic and it uses language to describe experience in a concrete, logical way. It gives structure and order to our experiences. The right brain is more concerned with emotion and the bigger picture of what the experience means. It draws on memories, feelings, and images, and is heavily directed by sensations in the body and the messages from the lower brain, which is the major player in anxiety. During anxiety, it is likely that the right brain has temporarily taken over. The feelings are overwhelming, and without the full involvement of the left brain, the feelings won’t necessarily make sense. A balance between the right and left are necessary to maintain normalcy.
Every physical symptom that comes with anxiety – racy heart, sick tummy, clammy skin, vomiting, shaky arms or legs – is because of the surging of these neurochemicals. The natural end to the fight or flight response is intense physical activity. If the threat was real, they’d be fighting for their lives or running for it. When there is no need to fight or flee, there is nothing to burn up the neurochemicals and they build up, causing the physical symptoms of anxiety.
Children with anxiety disorders may have unique needs and difficulties in a school setting making the learning process stressful. For children with social anxiety or social phobia, interacting with peers or doing school presentations and/or exams can be terrifying. Some children may actually become physically ill when faced with an upcoming presentation. Others may be afraid to answer or ask questions in class because of a fear of what their peers will think of them.
One of the exciting developments in psychology is the discovery that the brain is always open to change. It’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity, and what it means for our children is that every experience we expose them to has the capacity to change and strengthen their brain. Understanding what happens in the brain during anxiety, will help to understand the ways we can make a difference.
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