Bringing the Calm: How to Interrupt the Anxiety Loop

It’s true. There are some things I only understood once I was a parent.

Having a child changed the way I assessed risk and made decisions. I noticed that I always drove more cautiously when my baby was in the car.  I was more attentive to my own health issues. I even managed my money differently.  There is not one area of my life that the impact didn’t reach.  

I often jokingly tell parents that with each child they have, they grow an additional amygdala. One child, one more amygdala. Four children, four more amygdalas! And although it’s all said very tough in cheek, there is some truth in it. Each child widens our responsibility and desire to protect. 

Some readers might be wondering, “What’s an amygdala? And what’s it got to do with parenting?” The amygdala is the part of our brain which warns us of threat.  Once activated, our amygdala triggers a chemical reaction in an attempt to help us fight off or avoid danger. Our amygdala can be a gift to us as parents, as long as it is warning us of real threats, and not shadows in the dark.  

My children tell me that my “parenting amygdala” often worries about shadows in the dark. I over calculate. I get too fierce. I draw strong conclusions. I make assumptions. And if I am not careful, I can jump from, “If you go to that party you are going to end up in jail” in one single leap.  

I understand why. Those children mean the world to me.

Just like managing personal anxieties, I have to manage the gravitational (and very natural pull) I have towards protecting my children. I have had to be in tune with my body when I am parenting, so I don’t find myself being taken off course by an overactive amygdala.

Like every human on earth, I assess threats uniquely. My perceptions rely heavily on my life experiences. My memory bank is a powerful guide. As a parent I will have unique triggers that others may not. My understanding of these triggers is a vital part of my self-awareness and my quest to parent deliberately.

An overactive amygdala is the most common of all shared parenting experience, and often leads most of us to our funniest of parenting fails.

One parent I spoke to recently felt like she had embarrassingly let her amygdala dominate her decisions.  Her daughter had a fight with a school friend, which left her heartbroken and not wanting to go back to school.  This mother clearly remembered the days when she was rejected at school and wanted to protect her daughter from similar tragedy. She marched into the classroom and demanded that her child’s class be change, immediately. In hindsight she regretted this, but the amygdala can be pushy! It can bring out the crazy in us.

Both our children’s anxiety and our own anxiety is contagious. That is why parent – child communication can feel like a big stress loop. If we aren’t deliberately bringing the CALM to anxious conversations, the cycle only gathers momentum. Calm is exactly what we need to work through life’s solvable problems. Gust of fight or flight are perfect for a crisis, but not for everyday challenges.

Calm allows our children to access more complex thinking skills. Without calm a child’s brain is like an electrical plug which is not joined to problem solving power. The circuits that allow them to use rational thinking and make complex decisions just aren’t connected under pressure. Without a flow of ideas and creative thought, our children can quickly become stuck in anxiety.

Calm helps children plug in internally so they can then plug into the world around them. Only then can they logically draw on internal and external resources to move things forward.  A big deep breath, a gentle hug, a deliberate nod, a moment in peaceful acknowledgement or a reassuring voice all communicate, "It's okay. You are okay. Everything is okay."

The best news is that bringing the calm even helps them plug into us.  Only when a child feels calm can they draw on their parents as their greatest asset and external resource. Parent’s words carry a lot more weight once children’s brain is wired to receive new information.

Calm is perhaps the most challenging, but the most valuable gift any parent can bring to their child's life during a solvable life crisis. If your child is facing difficulties today, challenge yourself to be the calm and being the calm. It will make all the difference.

For more content like this, check out Michelle’s parenting book Everyday Resilience: Helping Kids Handle Friendship Drama, Academic Pressure and the Self-doubt of Growing Up”.  It is suitable for parents of children 6 - 17 years old and has a school issues focus. It is accompanied by The Everyday Resilience Journal and Video Series for Tweens.

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Michelle Mitchell