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Child Psychologist Fort Collins

What Happens to a Child’s Brain Under Stress?

…And How You Can Help Your Child Work Through Anxiety

Every child deals with stress and anxiety. Most stressors are a common part of your child’s development, and most children learn how to do deal with them appropriately over time. But if a child tends to hold onto stress and anxiety, circumstances that keep a child anxious for long periods of time can trigger “…extreme, prolonged activation of the body’s stress response system.” In other words, even after the stressful moment has passed, your child can still feel stuck in fear and anxiety. And when a child stays in that place for too long, it can negatively affect their learning and social development for years to come.

Here’s How It Works:

To get an idea of how your child may feel, it may be helpful to understand what is actually happening in their body. It’s basically when the nervous goes on overdrive unnecessarily.

When a child experiences stress, the hypothalamus (above the brainstem) releases a hormone that rushes to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then mobilizes the production of a second hormone that swims via the bloodstream to adrenal glands. The adrenal glands activate adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline accelerates the child’s heart rate and elevates the blood pressure. Cortisol pumps up the blood sugar level, elevating the child’s muscle and memory power and boosting the pain threshold.

Even though you may think having a sudden increase in muscle and memory power would be helpful for your child, this response is only needed for life-threatening emergencies that only last about 30 seconds. Constant stress and anxiety can do real damage to a child’s brain. Stress chemicals reroute or disconnect helpful brain pathways and can leave children depressed, anxious, fearful, overly reactive, and unable to learn new behaviors.

Imagine if you are in a deep state of anxiety, and someone asks you do to a simple task like cleaning your room or going to school for a week of standardized testing? No matter how simple it may seem, when a child is in the midst of anxiety, everything can become overwhelming.

Here are Two Free Ways to Help Your Child with Anxiety

  1. Don’t Be Anxious Yourself

One of the best things you can do to help your child work through stress and anxiety is for you to work through your own stress and anxiety. Stress is contagious, so taking the time to “de-stress” and have a peaceful home can do wonders. John Medina, author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, says this: “If you want your kid to get into Harvard, go home and love your spouse.”

  1. Exercise

If there was ever a “cure” to stress and anxiety it would be exercise. It’s one of the best things kids can do to combat stress, especially if the exercise is with a group. Start by walking the neighborhood with your child, inviting them to talk through anxieties. Try a weekly karate class or dance class, jump rope, swimming, hiking, or basketball. Whatever makes them sweat and breath hard will help strengthen your child’s ability to handle stress.  

Final Thoughts

Your Child Is Strong and Will Likely Be Just Fine

Our kids are incredible and resilient and they have parents who love them. Every parent does what they can to protect their child from unnecessary stress and anxiety, but there will always be circumstances that make stress unavoidable. If you think you or your child could use some tools in working through stress, it may be helpful to schedule an appointment with a mental health professional. We offer both comprehensive assessment and counseling for children and their parents.

When your child has the right tools and a safe space to navigate stress and anxiety, they can overcome these concerns and learn more about themselves along the way!

Dr. Jeremy Sharp is a licensed psychologist practicing in Fort Collins, Colorado. He specializes in psychological & neuropsychological assessment with children and adolescents.

Resources:

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2010). Persistent Fear and Anxiety Can Affect Young Children’s Learning and Development: Working Paper No. 9. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.

John Medina: Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School: http://www.brainrules.net/about-brain-rules

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