When I have a teenager in my office I try to give them a better understanding of anxiety and how its based in the body as well as the mind. Trying to explain neuroscience to teens hasn’t been that easy but it’s really important. Many teens think its just all in their head and then they get angry and frustrated with themselves because they cant just think their way out of it.
Lets get into the science. Maybe you have or haven’t heard of the parasympathetic and sympathetic system. Both of these systems basically let the body know how to react. These are the systems that are important to explain anxiety.
The parasympathetic system is basically when your chillin’ out. It keeps you able to function throughout your day by breathing, eating, etc.. The sympathetic system turns on when there is stress or you think you are stressed (important to understand it doesn’t need to be a real stressor thats actually happening). It’s preparing for danger and to protect you by running or fighting. When this system kicks in our body isn’t worried about anything else but protecting itself. Once the threat is gone our body goes back to parasympathetic nervous system and all is good.
The issue with anxiety disorders is that threats are seen everywhere and never ends. The brain constantly feels that we are in danger so the sympathetic system takes over, but never turns back off because the threat is never seen as over. Thats the key with understanding anxiety. The brain is reacting as if a real threat was occurring when many times there is no real danger just PERCEIVED danger. This is when its important to be working with a therapist to help the prefrontal cortex see the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat.
Lets look at an example…
Jan wakes up in the morning and is feeling fine, her parasympathetic system is working. She eats some breakfast and while eating goes on her phone. She sees that a friend posted a picture with another girl and Jan wasn’t there. Now Jan feels that her friendship may be in a bad place, her body goes into the sympathetic system. She is fearful her friendship is over, now she cant eat, her stomach hurts and she isn’t hearing her mom yelling at her to get ready for school. Nothing happens to make the threat end so she continues to now go to school with her parasympathetic system taking over. She gets to school but has issues concentrating on her work, the threat is all she can think of . Then she’s in class and has a test, again she perceives a threat because she’s trying to get really good grades for college. She now has short and shallow breath and she feels awful. The threats in her mind don’t end. Her body is not telling her parasympathetic system to kick back in.
When this is happening day in and day out we become exhausted and overwhelmed. Our body was not meant to be in this state all the time. This is when we see anxiety disorders.
If you need help please reach out www.kericooperholistictherapy.com
*Jan is not a real person but represents many teens