Welcome to Developing Matters CIC articles for families and schools, and most importantly how we can best support our children and young people. The topics are helpful for you to navigate the busy world and understand your children and young people at a deeper level. Knowledge of how the brain works is very powerful and can be a strategy for dealing with worries, stresses, life events and transitions. Hopefully we can all learn how to live more mindfully in this busy world.
Our brain’s alarm system
The amygdala is responsible for our fight, flight, freeze mode Fight, Flight, Freeze, and this part of the brain is in every human, animal and mammal to try and keep safe from being attacked or eaten! Fight, flight, freeze is good to keep us safe and is mostly triggered when an event happens. However, sometimes we can be in constant fight, flight, freeze mode and be on high alert when we do not need to be. This can add to anxiety and worry and make us feel unsafe or upset, and this is the same for our children and young people.
The amygdala are two almond-shaped parts of the brain, one on the left side and one on the right side. For such a big part of our reactions, it is a very small area of our brain. It is like a guard dog or alarm system; it tries to protect us and warn us about any danger we may face. The amygdala can be triggered by thoughts, emotions, memories, events or a mixture of all those things, and it reacts very quickly! It sends signals to different parts of the brain and influences the decisions we make.
When is our amygdala helpful?
Sometimes the amygdala is great as it protects us from danger. Some examples for both adults and young people are:
- Moving out the road when a car is coming.
- Being more alert when a stranger is approaching.
- Removing self from an argument or fight.
- Working out if a place is safe and looking around or listening.
- When we have to make decisions we are unsure about.
It releases the stress response for us and works really well in a lot of day-to-day situations. Our brain tries to make sense of situations and also tries to work out if we may be in danger in the future as well as the present moment. When it works well for us it keeps us safe and happy and helps us to navigate worries or upsetting events or situations.
When is it not helpful?
The amygdala can react pretty quickly and sometimes it doesn’t give us a chance to work out if we are actually in danger or not, creating false alarms. It can make mistakes and make us feel like we are in danger, making us feel worried, stressed and anxious when we do not need to be. There are times when the amygdala doesn’t need to go off as much or worry as much as it does.
The amygdala can also be on high alert and over-reactive all of the time due to a number of things such as:
- Experience of trauma.
- A life-changing event.
- Being in a difficult, unsafe or worrying environment.
- Extreme fear of the unknown.
- Having an overreactive response to things that others find low-level triggers.
- Additional needs, sensory processing needs, autism, ADHD.
- Anxiety disorders and/or depression.
- Transition times of life.
Any worries or stress can cause someone to be on high alert all of the time and be very sensitive to events, their own triggers, experiences and sensory activities. When the fight, flight, freeze response is stuck in this mode everything can feel like a threat or worry, even if it isn’t.
This can also be the case for a young person going through an event such as an exam period, they may feel more pressured, stressed and tired which will make their amygdala ready to respond; such as shouting back at someone out of content (flight), or feeling like they don’t want to get out of bed and face the day (flight).