The Anxiety Fear Cycle is a perpetual motion machine. When a child sees a thing they interpret as dangerous their brain sets off a fear response to get their body ready to run or defend itself. Those fear hormones start making their body feel wriggly or nauseous or jittery. This is a very smart way for a body to react in the presence of danger! Flooded with fear hormones, that child is ready to fight, flight or freeze — they are ready to survive! Good job, body! Once the danger has passed, the body calms down and the child can recover.
If that child is someone who is anxiety-prone — if they are someone who is hardwired to see danger in ordinary events — then they will keep setting off that body response and they won’t get a chance to recover. They will stay elevated and on high-alert, exacerbating their already finely tuned survival system.
A change in the daily routine? Uh-oh! Danger!!!
An exam at school that day? Uh-oh! Danger!!!
Their favorite shirt that they wanted to wear is in the wash? Uh-oh! Danger!!!
And so their brain learns very quickly to be super sensitive to potential danger, running right to elevated fear and keeping the body prepared to do whatever it takes to survive. That’s how you end up with a child who never seems to come down, who always seems ready to flip out over any little thing.
Think about how you feel on days when there’s something extra going on like an upcoming move or a task overdue at work. Aren’t you more jittery, irritable and tense? If you’re prone to anxiety yourself then you especially know how one looming concern can color the rest of your functioning.
That’s what’s happening to your anxious child, too.
Their feelings are legitimate — they ARE caught up in a fear response loop — but the danger is NOT real.
It’s so frustrating to parents because we can see that there is no danger. We can appreciate that routines need to be flexible. We know how hard they studied for the exam. We can see that the red shirt may be in the wash but the green shirt is right here, fresh and clean. But they are awash in stress/fear hormones, stuck in fight or flight or freeze.
As parents we need to do two things — help them confront (not avoid) their fears and help them learn to calm and care for their body until that fear response isn’t quite so sensitive.