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Fight or flight from Paper Tigers: What Anxiety looks and feels like in your child

The therapist Dr Dan Peters, from the popular Parent Footprint podcast calls Anxiety a response to a PAPER TIGER.

The part of the brain called the Amygdala has the important job of sensing danger and surging the body with neurochemicals that ready it for action.

The amygdala is the difference between life and death when you face a real tiger.

Anxiety is when the same part of the brain senses danger and triggers a response but to a paper tiger. The big fight or flight reaction is an unnecessary overreaction to a perceived threat that isn’t real.

Karen Young from Hey Sigmund explains

“Sometimes, your brain might sense danger and get you ready for fight or flight, when there is no need to fight or flee. The problem with this is that there is nothing to burn the neurochemicals that are surging through you and they build up.”

Anxiety is very common and some kids are just more likely to suffer from anxiety. Many Wonderfully Wired kids with their sensitive characters and big creative brains seem more prone to struggle with anxiety. It’s most likely a genetic predisposition (so chances are you fight your responses to paper tigers just like your child does) and it is seldom linked to specific traumatic trigger events.

Anxiety is no fun but it’s a package deal which comes with some great qualities in kids such as being highly empathetic , being inclined to think deeply and organise carefully.

What Anxiety feels like in the body (and why)

The Amygdala, thinking there is a real need to run away from a tiger, gets ready to do so:

First it cools itself down, cue the sweaty clammy feeling.

Then blood pumps through the body to get to those muscles needed to run or fight ready,causing the heart to race and the breath to shorten.

The body only uses the most necessary systems neglecting what isn’t urgent, like digestion. This causes stomach aches, nausea, diarrhea or constipation.

By the time your brain realises it was tricked by a paper tiger it calms down leaving the body simply exhausted.

Some common anxiety themes in kids:

  • Health - Concerns about health, about getting sick or about physical symptoms having sinister causes.

  • Perfection - Concerns about not being good enough or doing things well enough.

  • People Pleasing - Feeling anxiety about how others view you and assuming negative opinions.

  • Safety - Concerns about being safe or the people you love being safe.

  • Throwing up - Worry that you might throw up in public.

  • Mom’s safety - Concern about mom or dad and either their safety or yours if you are apart.

Anxiety can sabotage what children really want from their lives: the paranoid response from the Amygdala can ruin the fun by making kids avoid situations that could bring them much joy and fulfillment.

When the physical symptoms stack up, the same Amygdala suggests all sorts of solutions to avoid the discomfort. But when kids, and adults, comply with the unnecessary solutions, the tigers just seem more real.

My guest on the wonderfully Wired podcast this month is Natasha Daniels, an anxiety and OCD specialist child therapist. Natasha explains that the amygdala makes it worse by saying “this must be serious if you are feeling this way! You might really be sick.” It doesn’t want to admit to the false alarm.

It’s critical that kids understand their Amygdala really is being overactive and that they have the ability to retrain this necessary part of their brains to serve their lives better.

What we are looking for is a brain that still warns us when we must respond to an emergency but doesn’t do so too often and too lightly.

Next week, we learn how we can retrain our brains to do that.

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