Family Seminars on anxiety: what do we teach?
In the first seminar, we teach parents and their children about the neuroscience and psychology of anxiety. In the second, we go on to look at the practices and daily life experiments (DLEs), the tiny daily tweaks people can make, to challenge anxiety and gradually move beyond it. We emphasise gradually, because like all changes in habits of thought, feeling and activity, change grows at the speed of a plant through shifts in the neural architecture in our brains. We can change our brains because they are neurally plastic - we are, as Aristotle so presciently said a couple of millennia ago, what we do.
We have a four-step process throughout the two seminars.
Step 1 – Learning about anxiety
Step 2 – Exploring how anxiety manifests in lives, bodies & brains
Step 3 – Practising well-being and resilience activities that help prepare for anxiety to be challenged
Step 4 – Experimenting in daily lived experiences, developing growth ‘sweet-spots’ where young people and/or parents put themselves in times and places where they know they will feel uncomfortable so they can ride through that uncomfortableness and come out the other side.
What is anxiety?
At root, anxiety is fear + avoidance of fear. The other side of fear is the realisation that your brain often predicts wrongly about what is going to happen and is trying, in so many ways in the 21st century, to keep you safe from the very activities that help you grow and change.
Our message is very simple: anxiety arises naturally in human brains all of the time. It is a side effect of our brains trying to predict what is going to happen next. The brain constantly speculates about what is about to happen and because negative emotions held such a strong value in our ancestral past, our brains usually speculate negatively. Happy, smiley cave-people who weren’t cautious or worried that the noise behind the bush might be a sabre tooth tiger got eaten and didn’t pass on their happy-go-lucky temperament through their genes. We have all evolved therefore from the survivors of our violent and dangerous ancestral past – the worriers who sat back in the cave and didn’t venture out when there was any hint of danger.
Modern-day examples: social anxiety and taking tests
We teach that anxiety is just a natural emotion and that the modern world can trigger our ancient threat assessment software often, even though the threats we face aren’t life or death like they once were. Here’s one example of how our ancestral threat assessment software can give false positives in the modern era. For example, fear of social rejection is one of our primal fears as social creatures. We all want to get on with people and for them to like us. People hate conflict and difficult relationships - there’s no getting away from the fact that those things are unpleasant. But in the ancestral environment, social rejection likely meant falling out with your tribe and this was a life or death situation. Humans on their own couldn’t survive in the harsh environment of the African savannah 300,000 years ago, so social rejection from the tribe was a death sentence; it still feels like that today, even though the environment around us has changed fundamentally. Whilst falling out with people is unpleasant and to be avoided, it isn’t life or death like it once was, so the dread we feel when we might have offended someone or something unpleasant is said to us is misaligned nowadays with the consequences of these social difficulties in our lives. But Anxiety can balloon from such moments, it even has its own heading – social anxiety. Falling out with people in the 21st century is unlikely to lead to death, just unpleasant feelings and thoughts about making amends and moving on.
There are many more examples where our ancient ancestral software plays the kettle drums for certain threats, where nowadays the consequences are not danger or death. This is pernicious and upsetting, not just in the suffering it creates, but in the fact that our brain doubles down on the problem. To take another example, if we have an important test coming up, our ancient threat assessment software goes off, offering its simplistic fight-flight-freeze response. None of these actions, which were great at getting us out of a predator’s way in the ancestral environment, are appropriate ways to deal with a test. In fact, strong fight-flight-freeze responses literally shut down the neocortex, the thinking brain. In the ancestral past this made sense, we didn’t need to be thinking philosophically to get out of harm’s way, we just needed to run away from the sabre tooth tiger. Thinking got in the way of much faster impulsive responses in the past. Nowadays the threats or, better put, challenges, we face generally require our higher brains and faculties. Anxiety literally makes things worse in two ways:
- It can stop us experiencing things that help us to grow; and
- reduces the problem-solving, creative brilliance of the human brain to low-level fight-flight-freeze responses.
Andrew Wright continues his blog post here.
Andrew Wright has spent 25 years working in secondary schools. He’s been a head, deputy and SENDCO, starting his career a quarter of a century ago as a biology teacher.
He says; "In the last 10 years we’ve learnt more about the brain than we have in the last 10,000. This knowledge is new to parents and teachers alike. The science is absolutely fascinating. And it transforms what we do. Once you’ve understood how the brain works it’s impossible to return to the naive state. As a result you’ll never look at yourself or your children the same way again.
We set up Action Your Potential with the mission to take this knowledge and spread the good news far and wide. Our aim is nothing less than to transform the experience of being a 21st century parent and in the process help every child achieve his or her potential.”
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