The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 40 million adults in the United States are affected by an anxiety disorder – and these are just the individuals who have been diagnosed. Many more people are able to manage their symptoms in a variety of ways without seeking out a diagnosis, but they are suffering all the same. Some of these management approaches can be helpful, while others are less serving in the long run or not effective at all. Experts agree, nearly all adults know what anxiety feels like, whether it is acute or more long term, it’s an experience most people can relate to.
When we consider the experience of children, the picture begins to look even more bleak. In 2019, research* showed us that as many as two-thirds (66%) of elementary school children have school-related anxiety. This study did not include teenagers, who we all know are right in the middle of one of the most anxiety-provoking developmental periods of the human experience. If we understand that children and teenagers today face unprecedented stressors in the uncharted territory of today’s world (e.g., global pandemic, associated family and financial pressures, isolation from routines, friends, and loved ones, over scheduling, the pressure to “fit in”, social media drama, and the infamous incidents of bullying, etc.), we also know they often lack the compensation methods adults have learned over time. Considering all of this, it is easy to understand the imperative need for effective intervention.
Now, back to our original question: Why am I so anxious? The reason why many people often experience anxiety is related to the lowest region of the brain: the pons. The pons is part of the brainstem, and the brainstem is responsible for helping us regulate the very things that keep us alive like heart rate, breathing, sleeping, and eating. Feelings of anxiety originate as fear signals which developed in humans (and other animals) to ensure a sense of safety in a dangerous situation. When the pons is alerted to danger, it sends signals to another part of the brain called the amygdala to activate fight, flight, or freeze. This familiar behavior can be observed in animals being chased by a predator. It’s the brain’s way of calling out “Danger!”
Although it may look a little different, the same fight, fight, or freeze response is seen in humans. The problem is that we are not in regular danger of being chased by a predator, but our brains may still react to everyday situations as if it is a life or death situation. Common triggers can be homework, being stuck in traffic, being yelled at or insulted, etc. The pons was meant for quick activation in a truly dangerous situation. It was never meant to be easily triggered, and it was not meant to stay “on” and alert long term. This not only produces a constant sense of anxiety, but it is exhausting! In an effort to conserve energy, when the pons is triggered, other parts of the brain become less active. Our rational thinking cortex cannot function optimally, and learning and decision making are impaired. In babies, young children and even young adults, an overactive pons can actually cause parts of the cortex to not develop – physically changing the architecture of the brain. That’s correct, there are situations that can cause grey matter in the brain to actually dissolve. For example, in extreme cases of neglect, lack of nurturing physical touch and positive emotional connection can cause the cortex to develop what are referred to as “black holes” where grey matter is absent in the frontal left and right lobes of the brain. Even in such an extreme case of neglect is part someone’s brain’s history, In The Cortex can help change the architecture of the brain and help restore grey matter and keep it where it belongs.
Why does this happen in the first place?
It all goes back to the early stages of development. There is a series of developmental movements that a baby will naturally make if given the time, space, and the proper positioning to do so. These movements integrate the reflexes present before birth, and in the neonatal period, that growth and development can continue on an optimal trajectory.
In order for these sequential movements to occur and integrate, floor time, especially tummy time, is essential. There are a variety of common reasons that a baby does not get adequate time on the floor. Some babies resist tummy time or being put down and are carried most of the time. Some babies are swaddled for prolonged periods and are unable to practice tummy time for optimal results. Some babies spend a lot of time in containment devices such as swings, car seats, or exersaucers in place of floor time. Other times there are concerns about family pets or the safety of the floor space. Additionally, modern campaigns promoting a safety factor in babies sleeping on their back has also played a significant role in convincing parents that tummy time is particularly dangerous.
One of the most important parts of tummy time for an infant is when they begin to make small movements with their feet which eventually lead to the precursor of crawling. This is known as “creeping.” This is more difficult on a carpet and many parents are reluctant to put their babies down on a more slick surface; however, this movement is the only motion that will fully connect the neurons needed in the pons to ensure that fight or fight is not continually engaged. The good news: A well wired pons is an indicator for a calm mind for the child or the adult. Anxiety is not the go-to emotion for an individual with a pons that is integrated and connected with the other areas of the brain.
The bad news: Most adults are walking through life with a pons that is working too hard. This can lead to a frequent, even constant, sense of anxiety, panic, or anger-filled reactions over small matters. We may have consciously learned to compensate for our behavior, and we may even congratulate ourselves on our current level of functioning, but we never truly know how much easier and less exhausting life can be when the pons can get a break.
More good news, and it’s fascinating: We can develop our pons at any age. Recreating the natural movements of a baby, especially creeping, will help connect the neurons we need to let our pons rest. These movements can help reduce, even eliminate, feelings of anxiety. Without this current of underlying tension, we can remain in our cortex and be more calm, focused, and productive.
Life is so much better when we are thriving and not just surviving!
*A Mindful Movement, 2019