Words don't mean much when you're explaining feelings to kids or adults for that matter. You just gotta have pictures...to go with the words. But, I have learned that when people understand the "why" behind the "what", the discussion becomes about their "neurology" or wiring instead of their "personhood" or character or who they are. Once they understand that whatever they are feeling is a neurological issue, we talk about how to make changes.
I found that most kids, teens, and young adults developed an attitude of "It's me against my brain" and set about working to strengthen their weaknesses. I told them to not judge their entire bodies by the lousy job their hair was doing that day! Control the controllable.
First, understand that mobilizing adrenaline to save yourself is a very, very ancient process that was used by prehistoric humans to fight or flee. It's such an important brain dynamic that it is still part of us today even though woolly mammoths are not roaming around.
Second, it's one of the most powerful processes in our bodies. Anxiety is important to protect us, but most of the time, it cripples us. Anxiety is the number one mental health issue in today's society. Constant dumping of adrenaline could lead to the dumping of cortisol. Both adrenaline and cortisol erode health, lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, weight gain, sleep problems, depression and anxiety.
The system is made up of three organs that are part of the endocrine system. The endocrine system dumps hormones directly into your blood for fast action. Oh, and is it fast!
So, the three organs are the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands.
A bit of a primer here on these three organs:
1. The hypothalamus is responsible for maintaining the status quo or balance in the entire body. The hormones from the hypothalamus regulate temperature, thirst, hunger, sleep, mood, and sex drive. Despite the hypothalamus being small, it's got a starring role in both conscious and unconscious behavior, metabolism and growth and development. It's a big deal. It is the area of the brain that houses the pituitary and other glands.
2. The pituitary gland is the size of a pea. But it's a big deal because it plays a huge role in the control of growth, blood pressure, and certain features of the workings of the sex organs, thyroid organs and metabolism. It influences some dynamics of pregnancy, childbirth, breast feeding, temperature and pain relief.
3. The adrenal glands have several areas to them that have different functions. I'm going to skip the details and just report that they're responsible for the release of adrenaline which is the hormone that calls the blood to flow into your lungs and major muscle groups and away from your brain. It's the hormone that says, "Stop thinking and start running and fighting". You could feel lightheaded when this stuff is released.
Because the adrenal glands sit on a fat pad on top of your kidneys, it makes sense that you feel the need to pee frequently when you're nervous or excited. Notice that "nervous" (anxious) and excited feel the same to the body. Your response to the release of adrenaline reflects your interpretation of the event...stay and get on the roller coaster or run from the woolly mammoth.
1. Get a big piece of paper.
2. Draw a ridiculously bad outline of a body. This is usually the laughable part because most of us parents are horrible artists. Feel free to make mild fun of your artwork. Don't overdo it.
3. Draw a small circle in the brain (hypothalamus) with a smaller circle inside it (pituitary). And draw a kidney (shaped like a kidney bean...duh) in the abdomen.
You can give these areas funny names or the actual names. Whatever you do, make sure it's memorable so that you can remind the kids of the sequence whenever you need to. You won't have time to stop and review notes.
3. Tell them that the hypothalamus (or "Fred" or whatever) keeps the body in balance. Get up and stand on one leg and balance yourself. The better the show, the more they'll remember.
4. Tell them about the adrenal glands and how Fred is not allowed to talk to them directly, so he has to call the pituitary gland (act like you're calling the pituitary on the phone while you're balancing on one leg) and tell the pituitary gland to call the adrenals for HELP!!! because you're scared!!!
5. The adrenals unleash the mighty forces to protect you.
All in all, you're drawing a line from the hypothalamus to the pituitary and then, to the adrenals to show the sequence. This is the HPA axis.
Teach them that when this happened to cavemen, they needed to energy to run away from dinosaurs or whatever paints the scariest picture. But nowadays, we don't have dinosaurs, but we have imaginations and we imagine things that we think are scary, but can't actually hurt us like a spelling test. Doing poorly in school is a threat because of the potential for shameful and humiliating situations such as the spelling test withe big red F on it being slapped down onto your desk for your classmates to see. Ugh.
You can also tell them the signs that the adrenals have released the forces because their hands might shake, their bodies might shake, their voice might shake, their heart might pound really, really hard, their mouth can get dry and they might feel as though they want to cry or run away. They feel scared/excited.
Teach them how to talk to their bodies. One of the things they can do to reduce the "scariness" of feelings is to make those feelings happen..on purpose Let me explain.
Those feelings that tell you that you're nervous, if you make them happen, you can reduce their power, by using "interoceptive exposure".
Just so you know, "interoceptive exposure" means that the very sensations that scare us are intentionally brought about by, for example, squeezing and releasing muscle groups, standing and stretching, jumping jacks, running in place, whatever. The theory is that we learned to be afraid of these sensations, so if we have control over causing them, they will eventually lose their power.
One of the most powerful factors in all of this is "anticipatory anxiety". Franklin D. Roosevelt is quoted as saying, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself". I believe this is a perfect example of "anticipatory anxiety" or "gearing up to be anxious".
It's as if we're rehearsing to be anxious. It's best to learn "not to bleed until you've been cut".
Ask your kids if their fears are realistic. "How likely is it that this will happen?" Take it just one morning and afternoon at a time.
Teach them that if they do get anxious or "something" they fear happens, they will be able to cope with it because their family loves them. Lots of people love them and "we can help you". If they continue to face the things that scare them, they'll overcome it. Remind them of the fears they've overcome.
Please, please don't tell them they'll be "fine". Tell them that you have confidence in them that they can cope. They won't feel "fine", but they'll be alright if they hang in.
This process takes practice. Stick with it. They will learn not to be afraid. They will carry these lessons with them forever.
If they can't get the anxiety under control, get them help. They are truly suffering. Antidepressants sabotage the HPA axis. And, when the sequence is not triggered, they have an opportunity to learn the coping skills. Anxiety rarely improves on its own. Don't let it grow into depression. Depression is incredibly dangerous.
Just do the best you can, Claudia
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