“Just scared but can’t say why”

9 Aug

It is generally easier to help your child when he/she can clearly identify what is scary. A monster under the bed is an easier problem to contend with than a nonspecific “I am afraid”.  But there are occasions when children can’t identify why they are scared, or if they do, it may feel like they are making up an explanation. Sometimes we haven’t asked the right question or the child doesn’t feel safe enough to spill the beans. But there is another layer to this problem: the experiences of anxiety and fear are products of the brain’s alarm system, designed to keep us safe and alert to danger. When we consider how the alarm system can malfunction in two different ways, we may get a clue as why your child can’t pinpoint the reason for his/her concern.

The first way is that there may be a problem in the wiring and software of the alarm system, so that it generates too many false alarms or overstates the magnitude of the threat. OCD, for instance, is a problem with the junk mail filter or “anti-virus” program in the brain. The junk mail filter isn’t doing its job and is letting anxious thoughts clutter the mind. Educating children about junk mail or “not believing everything you think” can be an extremely helpful first step.

The second way the alarm system can malfunction is by getting overloaded. Just like any other system, our alarm system has a limit to what it can process, and this is what happens with trauma. When the alarm system can successfully implement a self-protective response of fight or flight, no trauma results because it has done its job. But there are a variety of circumstances in which the alarm system gets overloaded and the system shuts down. It can’t run away or put up a fight so it just  freezes.  What comes out are all the symptoms we associate with PTSD: flashbacks, avoiding any reminders of the trauma, and increased anxiety and emotional arousal. Traumatic stressors can include war, natural disasters, car crashes, medical procedures, and interpersonal violence, to name a few.   When it comes to children,  this type of stress actively interferes with nervous system development, which is actually a 25- year construction process, according to contemporary neuroscientists.

A central brain structure in anxiety and fear is the amygdala. It can form nonverbal, essentially unconscious memories of frightening events and it is operational at birth. The part of our brain that helps make conscious recollection, the hippocampus, is a work in progress during the first two years of life, which is why we don’t have clear memories of being babies. However, the amygdala can encode traumatic events on a nonverbal level: in one study, boys who were circumcised without anesthesia were shown to be more reactive to vaccination shots at 4-6months compared to boys who received this procedure with anesthesia. Although there is no conscious recollection, the reactivity of the infants who did not receive the anesthesia suggests that their bodies  had learned something from the experience and that the sensations wer remembered. While the research is clear that chronic stress and trauma can make the nervous system more reactive and anxious, on a more practical level, it is a hard thing to prove. Sometimes, a parent can say that their child was never the same after a particular incident, such as illness or accident, or that the mother knows she went through a horrific experience while pregnant or giving birth, and it certainly affected her. But the science is clear that nonverbal memories can be formed. So we are making some informed speculation based on neuroscience, trauma research and the clear inability to come up with an alternative explanation.  It may be that when your child can’t say why he or she is afraid, what you are seeing is the long shadow of something frightening that happened long ago to a tiny brain that got overwhelmed. Therapeutic interventions that are more based in becoming aware of body sensation, such as Somatic Experiencing Therapy, EMDR and Sensori-Motor Psychotherapy, can be very helpful with this kind of trauma.

copyright@edward plimpton

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: