Friday, November 10, 2017

Anxiety - The Alarm Of Being Separated

Last night I listened to Gordon Neufeld talking about, Making Sense of Anxiety In Children And Youth. And I was struck that despite our best efforts in attachment parenting we were still missing a vital component.

Gordon begins by saying that one of our biggest mistakes when treating childhood anxiety, is that we still use adult methods such as rationalizing irrational thoughts and prescribing medication. We focus on the symptoms versus the root cause. Amen, I heartily agree with that one! While psych meds can be a blessing, the more I learn about them, the more I realize they are way over prescribed and rather than "heal" a patient they simply alleviate the symptoms leaving the root cause to manifest itself in other ways. Of course there are times when medication is necessary for someone to begin healing but that isn't what I am here to share today.

Anxiety is a vague sense of feeling unsafe and unease characterized by apprehension which is both cognitive and emotional, along with a restless sense of what it is all about.

We are born with an already intact alarm system, in fact this alarm system is developed around 6 months gestation. What is the alarm system? It is a complex system that involves the limbic and emotional system. When you are alarmed your emotions are activated and your limbic system senses this (similar to a startle response). The alarm system makes you aware that something is wrong and our perception of our world fills in information. There is a heart response, then a mind response but this is all below the level of consciousness. Even though we are not consciously aware of all that is happening, the process brings emotions.

There is the belief that how you respond is most determined by what you see and unless we as parents "see" correctly, we won't respond correctly. 

When a child is about to enter a street you raise your voice and hope to see that light of recognition in their eye which signifies their alarm system has been activated. He will respond to your call with, "What?" And you will tell them. This is how the alarm system is supposed to work but for many it doesn't.

A child is faced with many devastating experiences; daddy being gone, loss of a loved one etc. but there is nothing the child can do about these experiences and a sense of futility comes over the child. When this happens the amygdala sends a signal to the lacrimal gland and the eyes water. When we are up against something we cannot change we become transformed through the process of adaptation. There are many kinds of tears but the tears of futility are a special kind, requiring a soft heart and a safe place for the child to experience them. Gordon said that many people with whom he worked both in private practice and in the prison system are dry eyed, they have lost the tears of futility. We witnessed this first hand with Braden although of course we weren't aware of this at the time. When a child truely experiences futile tears, behaviors melt away in their wake, leaving an hour or more where those behaviors are totally gone. We have seen this first hand as well. When Kiana truly cries those tears of futility, she is soft, safe and secure and all the behaviors that plague her are gone.

Anxiety is a matter of the heart, you can't think yourself out of this one, the more you think, the more anxious you become. We are created to find rest and relief which is why children need their tears when faced with futile situations, it leads to resilience, the brain realizes it can survive. The answer to anxiety has to do with tears of futility.

When lacking tears of futility another pathway opens, the path of courage or the path of things we treasure. We need to fight for the things we treasure and that brings mixed feelings. Until age 6 many children aren't able to reach a resolution to their sense of alarm. This leaves a child with the, "I want to go, I don't want to go" feeling but he isn't even aware that is what is going on. Typically in such a situation the child will begin to cry (and we as parent brush it off as childishness, which it is.) However some children, especially those who have learned not to cry, don't shed any tears and the alarm goes louder and higher. 

We know that feelings of alarm should move us...
....to caution if possible
... to cry if the situation is futile
.... to take courage in what alarms us in our way.
As parents we are traffic directors, deciding which route our child should take in any given situation. To help move to tears or to courage. 

Most neuroscientists have not yet figured out why this alarm system is so important because they don't understand the attachment theory. Attachment - facing the loss or lack of proximity with what or to whom we are attached. Separation is what alarms us so much. Attachment is our preeminent need, the less developed we are the greater the need. Pursuit of proximity is all about being with mom and dad or a teddy, sibling etc. when separated it triggers an alarm because we need proximity for our survival, it is a preeminent need. Every time an infant faces separation, it triggers the alarm. Ideally the first 6 years are all about relationships. Year after year another level of understanding of proximity, thus understanding of separation develops. Which means a child's "opportunity" to experience separation increases.

We typically think of attachment growing through the senses such as sight, smell, hearing and touch but in reality it is all about closeness and proximity.

By 2nd year the child's life is all about becoming "like." We feel close to those we are like but that opens another way of separation. To be different than, gives way to anxiety.

By 3rd year the child wants to belong, to be on the same side as. When the child doesn't experience a sense of belonging with those to whom he is attached, the alarm goes off.

By 4th year it is incredibly important for the child to matter. He feels close to those to whom he considers dear and when he doesn't experience that closeness, the alarm goes off.

By 5 yrs he becomes involved. He puts his heart into whatever he is attached to. But when you give your heart away it can be broken. another form of separation. If all develops well he realizes that to be known is to have no secrets that will come between. It alarms a child greatly when he has a secret which he cannot afford to tell mom. The alarm has to be silenced. Think of how often a child experiences separation, how often that alarm goes off:
bedtime is a big one
rival with a sibling for parents attention
in all these things he is experiencing a sense of separation.
When faced with separation, we are blinded to the reason. Separation is a significant experience but it is the vulnerability that is too much to bear. In our emotions we feel this deep wound and defenses are erected while other feelings are numbed out. The brain automatically tunes out perceptions that would lead to vulnerability. the most vulnerable of feelings are:
maternal rejection
separation from life we are used to
not being invited into the primary attachments presence.

The children with whom I work cannot name these rejections because when a separation becomes that intimate, a child cannot see it. Major rejections cause us to become blinded to even periphery rejections such as not being included in a party, missing teddy bear, different than others etc...

When we become blinded by the experiences that affect us the most it orphans the feelings of alarm, divorcing them from the cause. The brain cannot stand this and tries to figure out what is wrong. The brain is a "meaning making" organism and needs to know what is wrong. When it isn't given information it begins inventing reasons. the brain expresses alarm to what can be seen but since it is blinded it gives rise to obsessions that are irrational reasons for alarm. Gordon calls these irrational reasons, "Cognitive backfill." When the brain simply invents reasons it has certain themes it tends to follow such as, something is out of order and I am alarmed. Or somethings out to get me, paranoia of a circumstance or situation connected to the alarm which brings about phobia's.

All of these things come about because we are blinded by what is underneath - the separation we are experiencing. We call this, the alarm without eyes.

How does a sense of blindness disable the alarm system?
We know we can be defended against something that is too much to bear if it is situational but the problem occurs when our senses get stuck and our perception is knocked out. The brain can even knock out some feelings and impulses. An example is the child who doesn't heed caution. He becomes restless and reckless. We have agitation with no apprehension. The child doesn't say, "I don't feel safe." In fact he uses no safety language at all and if you were to ask him if he is scared, he will say no. But we are all scared! 

Even deeper: is the child who's brain goes right to physiology- this child can present as cool as a cucumber. You will never know he is alarmed. This child seeks adrenaline that is associated with the alarm system. These children do things like cutting just for the adrenaline rush. Our children are so highly alarmed they are becoming defended against it. Now we have:
-Anxiety based problems - not feeling safe, behaviors, phobia's, nightmares OCD
-Agitation based problems - this child doesn't feel unsafe. He is not scared or restless, he is reckless, dangerous constantly in harms way, implusive.
- Adrenaline based problems - devoid of feeling of alarm, attracted to what alarms, lacks attachment to conscience and engages in alarming behavior.

In this context we see that anxiety based problems are not that bad in relation to the other two. Anxiety makes you feel miserable but in reality you are better off than the one who doesn't feel pain. Anxiety loops and loops with no way out giving you no way to deal with source or find an outlet. Anxiety is incredibly uncomfortable so the child chews his nails, suck's on clothing or hands because this evokes the parasympathetic nervous system.

Some ways that we are separating our children and setting off the alarm is when we place them in time out or when we give a consequence and seek to find what the child is attached to so you can take it and use it against them. 

Separation is a vulnerability that is too much to bear. We get alarmed when faced with separation.

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