Thousands of years ago, our ancestors had larger foreheads, less comfy living quarters and a whole different set of things to be worried about. The tingling sensation and heightened awareness that occurred when you were about to be mauled by a mammoth, could potentially be lifesaving. Having your nervous system on high alert or as it is sometimes known “fight or flight,” can provide many added benefits, if you are in a perilous situation. Your senses are heightened, adrenaline flows through your system, you become stronger, more alert, faster, all things which can help you to escape physical harm.
In modern society, we are likely better served being worried about our email inbox as opposed to being some larger animal’s lunch. However, there are still remnants of our more primitive brain which exist today. Most of these are close to the brain stem and deal with our more base emotions, such as anger and anxiety. This is not to say that being worried about something does not still serve a purpose, it does. We can channel that energy to meet deadlines, improve our performance, and perform well in times of stress. In the way that most people’s brain works, after the time of heightened stress or imminent danger has passed, the brain returns to its normal state. However, if you suffer from anxiety, this is not always the case. The brain can continue to send out the signal that you are in danger, causing you to be constantly on edge.
So, what causes this misfire in the brain? Why do some people feel as though they are constantly anxious about something, no matter how inconsequential it might seem? The culprit is a tiny almond-shaped area in the brain known as the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for sending out an “alert” to the rest of your brain (and ultimately your entire body) that you are in danger. Recent neurological research has suggested that some people inherently have an over-active amygdala, almost like a twitchy trigger finger, that fires at inappropriate times.
Another factor is what people themselves interpret as being a potentially dangerous situation, based on their personality. If you are an introverted person who prefers to spend time by themselves or with one or two close friends, the idea of a cocktail party might seem like the end of the world. Or, if you are afraid of spiders, seeing a harmless small spider might feel as though it is a threat to your well-being.
The good news for people who suffer from anxiety is that there are several options to help alleviate your symptoms. Therapy has been shown to be very effective in helping to manage anxiety. The act of processing your anxieties and becoming more conscious of them can help to override your amygdala. Medication, when warranted, can also help.
If you have any questions about anxiety, or know someone who is suffering from it, don’t hesitate to contact me. Don’t suffer needlessly! Unless you are being pursued by a wooly mammoth, in which case, feel free to be nervous. Otherwise, take the first steps towards living a more comfortable and relaxed life.
Photo courtesy of wikimedia.org
The number of children that have been diagnosed with and Autism Spectrum Disorder has risen dramatically in recent years. About ten years ago the number of children diagnosed with Autism was estimated to be 1 in 1000. Five years ago, that number rose to 1 in 500. Today, it is 1 in 88. There is a great deal of debate about the cause of this steep increase in diagnosis, from environmental factors to greater awareness, but one thing remains clear: parents, schools, peers and everyone in the community needs to develop a better understanding of Autism and how to best help, interact with, and empower those with the diagnosis to reach their fullest potential.
The symbol used for Autism awareness is that of a puzzle piece to represent the complexities that are involved with treating and understanding the disorder. To begin with, simply distinguishing the different types of Autism can be confusing. Autism disorders are referred to as a "spectrum" precisely because there exists such a wide range of functioning. Severe Autism refers to children who have severe learning disabilities and high needs as far as activities of daily living. They are often not able to be independent of their caregivers. Asperger's disorder, PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorder) and high functioning Autism are at the opposite end of the spectrum and may often feature people who have extreme abilities in some areas, and/or high IQs. There exists a great deal of variance in functioning and symptoms in between these two ends of the spectrum.
Despite all of the degrees of difference in functioning of people with an autism diagnosis, there also exist significant general commonalities. People with Autism diagnoses will often exhibit many of the following characteristics:
-Sensory processing difficulties such as sensitivity to sounds, light, certain kinds of touch or clothes
-Difficulties tolerating changes in routine
-Symptoms of anxiety
-Extreme fascination with certain toys, books, tv shows, etc
-Inability to relate to others or interpersonal difficulties
-"Black and white" thinking (difficulty in tolerating ambiguity)
-Inappropriate laughing or crying
-Little or no eye contact
-Unresponsiveness to normal teaching methods at school
-Tantrums or extreme emotional responses for no apparent reason
There are many strategies which parents and schools can employ to help their child be more successful and make their own lives easier. The cartoon below from growingupwithautism.com is a great example of a picture schedule.
Check my resources page for more information around Autism Spectrum Disorders, or feel free to contact me.
Photo courtesy of http://theautismresearchfoundation.org/
Selective mutism (SM), is defined as a disorder of childhood characterized by an inability to speak in certain settings (e.g., at school, in public
places) despite speaking in other settings (e.g., at home with family). SM is associated with anxiety and may be an extreme form of social phobia.
The prevalence of SM is perhaps much more than one might expect. 1 in every 143 children are being diagnosed with SM. Usually the difference in speaking is noticed when children are attending kindergarten or first
grade as this is typically their first significant social experience outside of the house. There are often co-morbid (or co-existing) disorders that are commonly seen with SM such as social anxiety disorders or sensory integration disorders. Thus, when providing treatment for SM, a multidisciplinary approach is often very effective. Anti-anxiety medication in combination with therapies has also been shown to help achieve the desired results more quickly.
In working with many children who have a diagnosis of SM, one thing that has really stood out to me is the importance of not placing pressure on the child to speak. It can be difficult for parents and caregivers not to place pressure on the child to speak as it is expected in many situations. It also can be difficult to not "jump in" for the child and speak for them. The advice that I usually give around this is to give the child a few moments to try to respond on their own, and then explain that your child sometimes gets nervous. Most people are used to this to some degree, and will ideally shift their attention away.
The other common misconception is that the failure to speak in certain settings is a willful defiance or behavioral problem. While some children who have a diagnosis of SM have strong-willed personality types, the most significant reason for their not speaking is a result of a paralyzing anxiety. Research into some of the neurological reasons for SM has suggested that children who have the disorder have an overly active amygdala. The amygdala is a region of the brain that has a primary role in the processing of memory and emotions. When this limbic area of the brain is put on "alert," it sends out a signal to the rest of the body. This can affect breathing, movement, and emotional responses. The so-called "fight or flight" response is enacted. Thus, situations that are to some people essentially non-threatening (being out side the home, coming into contact with unfamiliar people, etc.) are viewed as a threat to one's well-being.
It is imperative that treatment for SM begin as soon as there is any evidence of its symptoms. Often the recognition happens around the time of the child first school-age experience. As children get older, the symptoms become more ingrained and the disorder is more difficult to treat.
If you have questions around SM, feel free to contact me.
BOOKS Helping Your Child With Selective Mutism: Steps to Overcome a Fear of Speaking By Charles E. Cunningham, Ph. D,
Melanie K. Vanier Why Dylan Doesn't Talk: A Real-Life Look at Selective Mutism Through the Eyes of a Child. By Carrie Bryson
Photo courtsey of sheknows.com
Stephen Quinlan is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker who practices in Dover, NH