Did I do something that caused my kid to have this anxiety or OCD?
The answer would almost always be “no” to this questions. Some parents do place a lot of pressure on their children. Some are emotionally or physically abusive to their kids and these actions can cause fear or anxiety reactions. OCD or obsessive-compulsive disorder and many anxiety disorders, are psychobiological conditions, and more likely the result of brain function. Fortunately, anxiety disorders, for example social anxiety (performance, fear of humiliation or rejection) posttraumatic stress disorder, specific phobias (illness, situations), generalized anxiety disorder, and OCD, are treatable conditions.
Treatment focuses on how these conditions are maintained and works to eliminate the behaviors and thoughts responsible for the maintenance of the fears. I’ll look at how fear and anxiety, obsessions and compulsions are maintained in another article. Lets look at the fear and anxiety pathway.
First, the brain’s sensory thalamus picks up on a feared stimulus. Interestingly, we don’t have to be consciously aware of what exactly triggers the fear response. You can see that the pathway on the “low road” goes immediately to the amygdala, which grossly interprets the input as a threat and immediately generates a body level response as in “fight or flight.” Some people notice a feeling of fear. They may have a gut reaction in that they feel queasy or nauseous. Their heart rate may shoot up; get sweaty palms and a dry mouth. They may feel dizzy. These reactions are sometimes referred to as panic reactions. The response of the amygdala can be a very quick 50 milliseconds, which is important for survival. If a car is bearing down on you, you want to get out of the way. You don’t want to go through a thought process, “Oh my goodness! A car is coming right at me. I’d better move out of the way before it hits me.” It would be too late. You could be severely injured or dead. The low road produces adrenalin and cortisol to motivate you to react immediately, to escape, fight, or get out of the way. There is no time to think it through. The “high road” path can take 250 milliseconds. The cortex (thinking part of our brain) interprets the threat and helps us make sense of it. This ability can help us change the response in the long run.
Fortunately, we can use this high road pathway to train the emotional part of our brains to read and react differently. You see this happening when you watch football games when a quarterback stays in the pocket while a 325-pound lineman runs at him like a freight train. The quarterback “reads” two or three targets and gets rid of the ball within less than two seconds.
So, no, parents, you probably didn’t cause your child to have these disorders. Some of us have a lower biological tolerance for threat. Like a good coach, you want to teach your child how to read these threats differently. Just like practice in sports, it takes a combination of training behaviorally and emotional coaching so that children have enough repetitions to stand in there in the face of the anxiety triggers. It takes emotional coaching, not with a yelling coach, but with a patient, empathetic coach who will walk through the experiences with their child until they can perform on their own.
Imagine trying to coach a kid through their fears by yelling at them or acting like they shouldn’t be upset. Intimidating a child into emotional strength just doesn’t have a place in modern society.
Look for an article on “How fear and anxiety is maintained” coming up.
David Barnhart, EdD
Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor