I’m a dad. I have two small children. And I noticed the other day that whenever I get out of the car after driving my family somewhere, I’m all sweaty, I feel agitated and a little bit on-edge. My heart rate’s faster, I notice I’ve been gripping the steering wheel like I’m trying to strangle the thing. And y’know you might be thinking: Duh, driving is stressful especially with two small children. Right, but why does it make me sweat so much and jack up my blood pressure and make me so irritable? What’s going on to make that happen, because it sure doesn’t seem to be making me drive better? Well, it turns out that what’s causing me to feel stressed while driving is one of the most important systems in our bodies, not far behind some things like the digestive system and the respiratory system. And it’s this system that is wreaking havoc on David’s mental health and making his mom, Sheila, terrified that there’s something wrong with her son.
Hello, I’m Corey Busch and you’re listening to the Teen Mind—the show where we follow one teenager and his family and learn to change the way we understand and talk people closest to us, especially our teens.
So, today: What is happening to David that’s causing him to, as his mom puts it, “not be himself anymore.” We’ll get deeper into David’s experience and learn how a little bit of brain science can help us think very differently about anxiety, anger, and fear.
And a few quick notes: David and his family are fictional characters. Any resemblance to real people is strictly coincidental. Also, if you haven’t listened to episode one where we meet Sheila and her son David, I encourage you to do so before continuing with this one.
So, to understand David’s experience, we need to get back in the car with me for a bit.
So, I like to think I’m a good driver. The problem is that sometimes I get a little bored, and maybe I get distracted. So, if I see one of those billboards that looks like a giant TV, y’know the ones that change pictures every few seconds, I might take my eyes off the road for a bit: Oooooh, big shiny screen! And just a few weeks ago, I’m on the highway, and I pass one of those billboards, and my eyes wander. By the time I look back to the road, the car in front of me has slowed to about 20 miles per hour and I’m still going 68.
And what happens next is, I think, pretty amazing. In a fraction of a second, before I’m at all aware of what’s going on, my brain senses danger and sends a cascade of hormones throughout my body, speeding up my heart rate, sending more energy to my muscles, and overriding the slow, rational parts of my brain in favor of the quick, reactive parts. The end result is that both of my hands immediately grip the steering wheel, while my foot flies to the brake. My reaction time is almost super-human. My focus and my hand-eye coordination are precise and flawless. I swerve my car to the left just in time to avoid smashing into that mini-van.
And for several seconds after, I feel the effects of these hormones, mostly adrenaline and cortisol, still pumping through my body. It’s not just my muscles, my heart-rate, and my reaction time. My stomach and throat feel tight and uncomfortable. I’m breathing faster, my jaw is clenched, my mouth is dry, I’m sweating like mad, and my hands and feet feel cold. And I’m not aware of it, but my immune system has kicked into overdrive and my digestive system has pretty much shut down.
This process that takes control of my brain and body is called the Stress Response or, as we’ll call it, the Fight-or-Flight Response. And when we left Sheila, she didn’t realize it, but this response was playing a huge part in her son’s dramatic decline in school, and in his mood at home.
To understand this, we need to talk a bit more about what was happening to David the beginning of his sophomore year. David had started feeling quite a bit of stress about school starting his freshman year. His parents and teachers had talked a lot about how important his grades were in high school, how these grades really count when it comes to college. And a big part of David’s identity was that he was a great student, not a good student, a great student. He’d constantly been told this since he was in grade school.
So before 9th grade, he made a goal for himself to get straight As, a 4.0, all throughout high school. And as 9th grade ended, and he looked at his report card, with the 4.0 at the top, he felt a pressure starting build. A pressure to maintain that 4.0. And without knowing it, his parents added to this pressure, making a big deal out of the 4.0, telling relatives and friends about it. And so what happened after his freshman year is that, in David’s mind, anything below an A meant total failure.
David was taking a lot of AP classes his sophomore year, and one of them, Ms. Washington’s Composition class, was famous for being really hard. And the first week of school, she assigned a 1 page paper where they were to describe a metaphor for their experience as a student for the past 10 years. David wasn’t a big fan of the assignment and had a quiz in Biology he had to study for, so he didn’t spend a ton of time on the paper. When he got it back the following week, there was a C- at the top, followed by the words, “shows lack of effort.”
And in that moment David felt like he’d been punched in the gut. He felt his face getting red, there was a tightness in his stomach and his throat, and this kind of cloudy, but very intense sense of impending doom. It was a feeling very much like how I felt when I saw I was about to barrel into that mini-van. After a few minutes, the initial shock of the C- started to wear off and David noticed his shaky hands, his flushed face, and his pounding heart, and he thought he was maybe going crazy.
And then he became aware of the other kids in room and his fear intensified again, because if he was going crazy, then everyone was going to see him lose it, and suddenly the only thing he could think was “Get out of here now!” and he stood up, whispered to the teacher something about feeling sick, and walked out the door.
And so it is here that David experienced his first anxiety attack.
So, both David and I experienced stressful situations. Both David and I felt the rush of the fight or flight response taking over. If you were to closely watch all our major organ functions during our two stressors, you’d see very similar things happening in our brains and bodies.
But, just hold, let’s just think about this for a second: David was afraid of…the possible future reactions of other human beings. And I was afraid of … imminent death. So…why are our bodies triggering the same protective response, because, c’mon, these are very different dangers we’re talking about. And there’s the $64,000 question. And that’s what we’re going to be wrestling with for quite some time here.
So, let’s dive in!
I guess, this would be a good time to introduce our friend, the amygdala. Because it’s the amygdala that’s going to be responsible for this whole mess.
So, I want you to think about the security screening line at an airport. And think about the TSA agent whose job it is to watch the x-rays of all the baggage, carefully check every bag for any hint of what might be a dangerous item, even if it’s just a container of yogurt. Well, I want you to imagine one of those TSA agents in David’s head, scanning every piece of information sent to his brain through his five senses. That TSA agent is David’s amygdala. Every face he sees, every voice he hears gets filtered through the amygdala. And it is his amygdala who has a finger on the Alarm in David’s brain, which when pushed, triggers the fight or flight response and his anxiety attack.
And just like the TSA, the amygdala’s MO is better safe than sorry. Better to sound the alarm because of yogurt than to let a bomb pass through. And this is where the sensitivity of David’s amygdala gets really important, because different people’s amygdalae are sensitive to different things, and for reasons we’ll get into next time, David’s happens to be really sensitive to failure.
And so both David and my Amygdala reacted in about the same way, but there are key differences in our experiences as well. And I think it’s important to deal with some terms here, and that’s the difference between anxiety, and just plain old healthy fear.
One thing you’ll notice is that there was a clear resolution to my experience with danger. The threat to my life was there one second and then completely gone the next. The stress hormones were allowed to run their course, and then my body gradually recalibrated to “everything’s okay” mode, and soon enough, flushed the hormones out. I was experiencing plain old fear.
The threat to David, on the other hand, did not have a clear resolution. That C- lead to the spiral of anxiety that kept him awake that night Sheila came to check on him.
And here’s where we need to talk about maybe the most important function affected by fight or flight: Our thinking. Because fight or flight makes it harder to think in the cool, rational way we humans are so proud of, and it switches our thinking to be more fear-based, more reactive. Some brain scientists call this “flipping your lid” And one thing we know about teenagers, is that they are much more likely to flip their lid than adults are. They have a harder time processing emotions in the rational part of the brain.
And what this means for David is that during his anxiety attack, he flipped his lid, and his thinking became extreme, almost apocalyptic: “My friends are going to completely reject me.” “My parents aren’t going to love me anymore.” “My teacher thinks I’m the laziest kid in this school.” And then these thoughts actually continued to trigger his fight or flight response, which continued to flip his lid and maintain his apocalyptic thoughts.
And so for David, the danger never really went away. The tight feeling in his gut, the feeling of impending doom, his increased blood pressure: These eased but stayed with him. This is a really big deal. It’s what separates anxiety from fear. Anxiety is a cycle of stressor triggering fight or flight, triggering negative thoughts which then re-trigger fight or flight and down it goes. This is very different from regular fear, where fight or flight is resolved after the danger goes away.
So, before we talk about what this means for us, let’s talk about another important fight or flight response: anger.
And let’s take a look at a conversation between David and Sheila a few days after that first anxiety attack. David’s been in fight or flight mode for the better part of three days, and we’ll just say, the guy’s on edge. Sheila asks about that paper, the one he got a C minus on. Right away, his fight or flight jumps to red alert and he flips his lid, rational thought going out the window.
He starts with a flight tactic, evading the question, with an inaudible, “iuoouu.” Sheila asks again, because she actually just couldn’t hear him. David responds about the same way, “mmouduoph.” But then, one more time, she asks, and he unconsciously switches from flight to fight, “I don’t know mom, I haven’t gotten it back yet. God, are you going to ask me about every single assignment this year? I’m not a little kid. I can take care of myself!” And he storms out, leaving Sheila stunned in the dining room. PAUSE And as the next few months unfold, Sheila sees a lot more of these angry outbursts from David. And behind every one is his amygdala, lashing out in order to protect him from any topic that smells of failure.
So before we wrap up, let’s get into how knowing about the fight or flight response can help you in your life with your real teenager, or partner, or toddler, or parent.
The first thing is that the fight or flight response is automatic and happens mostly outside of our control. This means that when David gets angry at his mom, he’s not really in control of his anger. Or when he can’t fall asleep, that anxiety is not on purpose, it’s his amygdala taking over. And so you might hear people say, “you shouldn’t be so upset about this, because it’s not that big of a deal.” Well, now we know better. Telling our teens, or anyone for that matter, to not be angry, sad, anxious, afraid is like asking someone who’s running on a 90 degree day to stop sweating. And you might say, well it just doesn’t make sense, why is he getting so upset about a C-? Great question. In two weeks, I’ll tell you.
The other thing about the fight or flight response is that it’s contagious. Have you ever sat through someone giving a presentation when they’re really nervous? It makes you nervous, doesn’t it? When people around us are in fight or flight mode, we unconsciously respond with our own fight or flight. As far as your amygdala knows, if the guy next to you is freaking out, well then, maybe you should be freaking out too!
So, this is huge for you and your teen, because if you start a conversation really stressed or angry, then, you’ve just sabotaged the whole thing before it even starts. Because your flipped lid will likely trigger your teen to flip theirs, killing your chances of having a productive, rational conversation. So, before talking, take a few minutes to calm your fight or flight response: take some deep breaths, meditate, go for a walk, whatever works. You’ll increase your chances of success before even opening your mouth.
Thanks so much for listening. Next time: What happened that made David so sensitive to failure? And why does his fight or flight mode, a system apparently designed for physical danger, kick in for a threat that has nothing to do with physical safety: A red C- on a piece of paper.