The Science of Anxiety

As well as Mini Me Yoga, I work with a lot of families and their children, helping with specific difficulties they may be having. A few months ago created a survey to find out what parents were most worried about regarding their child: Anxiety, Anger, Depression, ADHD, Inability to Concentrate, Social Media and the Digital World, Friendship Issues and Specific Health Issues. As you can see from the graph below, 50% of all respondents said that the one thing they were most concerned about was anxiety.

As many as 1 in 6 children and teenagers in the UK experience anxiety at some point, and most adults who have anxiety will have had their first symptoms as children.

To start off, it’s good to say that anxiety is a natural human response which, in evolutionary terms, makes a lot of sense. Anxiety is basically a sense of fear and apprehension which puts you on alert and into a heightened sense of awareness so we’re prepared for potential threats. If you imagine back to caveman times, when we lived off the land but the land also lived off of us, anxiety was incredibly useful. When the average caveman was out picking berries and there was a movement in the distance, someone with no anxiety might just gaze in curiosity as some new creature ambles towards them. On the other hand, the caveman with a healthy dose of anxiety may leap back into his cave and grab his spear (fight) or run and hide (flight). Now, the caveman with no anxiety may well be lucky and not get eaten… and his lack of anxiety may mean that he explores further afield than our anxious friend watching from his cave entrance, so he may find the juiciest berries, or the best cave. But then again he might not be wary enough… and get eaten by the bear. On the other hand, the anxious caveman may stay safe in his well-known and defended surroundings, but his wariness may lead him to miss out on the glut of food just over the hill that he doesn’t dare explore.

In this world we need both types of people: the brave explorers who push the boundaries (astronauts, explorers, inventors etc.) and those who keep the home fires burning (the farmers, the carers, the shopkeepers etc.); but unlike in caveman days, a lot of our fears and worries are not physical threats but emotional ones, or mental ones – relationships, work, school, money, exams and so on. Some level of anxiety is perfectly normal, but usually when a period of anxiety or worry is over we can feel better and calm down. The problem comes when the anxiety becomes constant and we end up living with the physical and emotional effects on a day to day basis, even when there appears to be no cause for them.   

We are probably all familiar with the sensations of anxiety: stomach upsets, heart flutters, shallow breathing; but before any of these physical symptoms manifest, the brain is already at work. Several parts of the brain are involved in the production of fear and anxiety, but the key parts are the amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdala processes and interprets sensory signals – this is the part that communicates to the rest of the brain that there is danger present. The hippocampus encodes threatening events into memories. When your amygdala senses a threat, it kicks off your stress response. Your system is flooded with norepinephrine and cortisol; both are designed to give you a boost to perception, reflexes, and speed, in dangerous situations. They increase your heart rate, get more blood to your muscles, get more air into your lungs; and in general, get you ready to deal with whatever threat is present. Your body turns its full attention to survival. Unfortunately, our thinking part of the brain – our prefrontal cortex – tends to shut down when our amygdala is active, which makes thinking difficult! Ideally, when the threat passes, your body goes back to normal. Anxiety can be a warning sign that you are about to do something you may not want to do (such as a job interview, first day at school, some kind of conflict ahead); or could be caused by irrational thought patterns which make you to see everything as a threat, perhaps as a learned response to previously stressful situations.

The vast majority of the children I work with suffer from anxiety – they worry about school, friends, issues in the world – global warming and politics. One of the most important things we can do for an anxious child is to let them know that anxiety is normal, but when it becomes too active, we can learn ways to tame it. For the children, I talk about the brain in terms of animals: the amygdala is a meerkat – up on its back legs looking out for danger. The prefrontal cortex is a wise owl who gets spooked and flies away when our meerkat gets upset and starts squeaking out for danger. Our Hippocampus is an elephant who never forgets – he encodes our emotional memories, and sometimes when he remembers we felt afraid or angry, it can trigger our meerkat again. Mindfulness activities such as yoga, mindful colouring, and deep breathing techniques can all calm our inner meerkat, and therefore help tame our anxiety.

About Suzy

Suzy is Mini Me Yoga Ambassador for Somerset, who is passionate about improving children’s mental health and chances in life. She has a degree in Psychology, and is also a Kids Mindfulness and Mindful Emotion Coach, who loves giving kids the tools they need to nurture their mental and emotional wellbeing.

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