Can you relate to this cartoon or does it remind you of your teenage daughter? Perhaps your son lies awake at night like Charlie Brown did, having anxieties about his anxieties.
We all experience anxiety in response to a perceived threat, it is not our fault but an essential part of how the brain works to keep us safe. This is a nervous system response vital when faced with a life or death situation. The sympathetic branch of the nervous system kicks in the fight, flight or freeze response to essentially mobilise and prepare us for action.
Anxiety may include:
- Strong emotional arousal, fear and/or panic
- Racing and worrying thoughts, imagining the worst outcomes
- Strong, uncomfortable body sensations such as muscle tension, heart racing, butterflies or stomach pains
- Urgent impulses – to run away, avoid or fight or freeze.
However, have you seen a tiger walking the streets outside your home recently? More often than not this response is activated not by a real tiger but by paper tigers, meaning most of our stressors are not life threatening and tend to be a perceived threat to our sense of self, a psychological threat. Perhaps we said the wrong thing to someone or have thoughts about not being the perfect parent. Teenagers for instance, may worry about not achieving a high enough ATAR, about how to ask someone out on a date or wearing the wrong dress to the formal. These paper tigers won’t kill us or our teen but boy they sure feel like they will!
Once the threat or stressor has passed, a well-regulated nervous system will activate the parasympathetic branch allowing us to relax. Our ability to self-regulate involves being able to switch from these two branches, from arousal to relaxation.
Nevertheless, we can get caught in habitual anxiety and have difficulty returning to a less anxious state. This does not mean there is something wrong with us, our brain is wired to keep practising negativity, looking for threats and problems in order to protect us. One anxious thought can lead to another and another…
The more we practice this the better we get at doing anxiety. These thoughts are unhelpful, they undermine confidence, our ability to manage problems and leave us exhausted. It can become a cycle where interpretations of events or internal happenings such as thoughts, feelings and even body sensations trigger more arousal and anxiety. For teens, we want them to establish positive coping behaviours and helpful thinking habits early, in order to counter-balance the brains bias towards the negative.
There is always going to be uncertainty and stress in life. To support your teenager in establishing helpful thinking patterns, reduce anxiety habits and learn healthy ways to self-regulate book into Mindfulness for Teens; a six-week evidence-based mindfulness program for students aged between 14-19 years.