Freaking Out, Brain Science, and Resetting Your Body

Racing heart. Sweat. Labored breathing, Uncontrollable crying. Chest tightening. You feel like you're going to DIE. Your body is reacting to perceived danger in your brain. Your unconscious mind has picked up a signal that you are unsafe and your body needs to activate for protection. When your brain senses danger, a messenger relays that information to your amygdala from your brain stem before your cerebral cortex can process it and make sense of it logically. The message is Fight. Flight. or Freeze. 

What are "threats" or "perceived dangers" to the brain?

1. Threats to basic human needs both physiological and safety needs. Not only are traumatic experiences threatening, but physiological and love needs can also trigger a response. H.A.L.T stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. Are you feeling any of these?

2. "Shoulds." The "shoulds" are expectations you tell yourself. I should be more...I should have done this...I shouldn't be like that...I should...I should...I should. Go ahead--start writing a list of your "shoulds" as you realize them. We all have the "shoulds."

3. The Unknown. The unknown can be frightening. The unknown of the future. Of the unexpected. Of how your body will respond. Of outcomes. Unpredictability. Really, the unknown can go on for infinity.

4. Contradictory Messages in the Environment: Mixed messages in an environment are threats to the brain. Double standards. Unpredictability. For example: A parent who either encourages or "forces" a child to do an activity, and then criticizes his effort. Or a partner who is a completely different person under the influence of alcohol. 

5. Implicit Memories. These are memories that rise to the "surface" of the brain, although are not recognized as a memory. It is when something happening now stirs up a memory from the past when you felt similarly--even though the current situation may be completely different. There is no time stamp either. For example, a scent associated with a past event may bring about an emotional response, yet the individual is unaware that scent was associated with the memory.

Dysregulation vs Defiance

This physical response to a perceived threat is called dysregulation, and it happens to both children and adults. The difference for a child though, is typically, he/she does not have the tools and skills to express this intense whirlwind. He/she often shuts down or acts out in order to release or suppress that energy. What may look like defiance is actually a physiological response to perceived danger. Defiance is intentional and motivated by a desired outcome. Dysregulation is governed by the nervous system. Try telling a dysregulated nervous system that "there is nothing to be afraid of" or to simply "calm down." Or "he just needs a spanking." It's like sending an email through the mailbox in your front yard. You're sending a message through the wrong channels in the brain. 

Symptoms of Dysregulation

We are all very much aware when a dysregulated individual is in a hyper-aroused state: Aggression, disorganized, alert, excessive motor activity, uncontrollable, irritable, anxious. 

But, a hypo-arousal state looks and feels much differently. It's easier to misperceive. Tired, automatic obedience, appears life-less, non-expressive, numb, lack of motivation, isolated, helplessness.

neuroscienceGodsdesign.jpg

Respond More Effectively

Mindfulness is key. Mindful awareness practices activate and harness the power of the prefrontal cortex in order to respond more effectively. As you repeatedly practice something, that state becomes a trait. You rewire your neurons. How cool is that?! Daniel Siegel discusses this here. 

Mindfulness is simply recognizing what's going on inside (our internal experience) in order to shift our internal experience. When we are more aware of what is happening on the inside, then we have more freedom to make a different choice in our response. This self-awareness allows people to stay connected to themselves in overwhelming moments. Self awareness allows the brain to think rationally, thus giving more choice and control over a response. Modeling is the best way to teach mindfulness. Check in with yourself throughout the day, particularly with your body. Notice what is happening to your body in regards to temperature, sensations, and movement. What parts are tight or clenched? What parts are relaxed? Notice and breathe. We want our mind to be an active participant--when we bring our attention to our body, our brain is less likely to "jump to conclusions" about what is happening in the situation or in the environment. The more we model and teach our children to be mindful of the body, overtime, patterns that we have been stuck in, will begin to soften and release.

Reset your body 

Grounding exercises are designed to bring your awareness into the present moment which reminds our bodies that we are actually safe from harm. Adrenaline and cortisol then can be reduced.

Grounding exercises are designed to bring your awareness into the present moment which reminds our bodies that we are actually safe from harm. Adrenaline and cortisol then can be reduced.

When we change our perceptions, we change the symptoms in our nervous system.
— Lisa Dion, The Play Therapy Institute of Colorado

Lisa Dion compiled a list of activities to help return our bodies to a more regulated state.

  • Run, jump, spin, dance, bounce on yoga ball, crash into something soft, roll on the floor
  • Sit in a chair and push up by straightening arms
  • Massages, deep pressure on your arms and legs
  • Eat something crunchy
  • Drink through a straw
  • Take a bath/shower
  • Wrap up in a blanket
  • March or sing during transitions
  • Play music
  • Carry something heavy
  • Do a wall push up, or press hands together firmly
  • Run up/down steps
  • Hang upside down
  • Play sports
  • Doodle
  • Hold a fidget (koosh ball, rubber band, silly putty)
  • Dim the lights/Turn on the lights
  • Swing
  • Yoga
  • Breathe

Seek Professional Help

A healthy and effective therapeutic relationship with a counselor will provide an opportunity for you to examine and understand your perceived threats in a safe, empathic relationship and environment. For children, therapy involving play, sand, and activities will increase self-awareness, acceptance,  regulation, and self-control. A therapeutic relationship can connect at both the brain and heart levels that promotes new growth and neural pathways in the brain as well as heal any hurts in the heart.

 

 

 

The Play Project

The Play Project is a public awareness initiative developed by The Playroom Lubbock to encourage play, movement, and mindfulness in our kids' lives. Play is how our kids make sense of the world. Many of you have an impact in children's lives through play. The message we want to send is that play and mindfulness is an integral part of life for communicating, coping, adjusting, and discovering. At The Playroom Lubbock we provide therapy solutions for kids using play based interventions to help them fulfill their purpose in this life.

TShirt Designs by Kelly Martin, LPC of The Playroom Lubbock and Regina Penney of Penney Photography and Design.

A Beginning to a Whining's End

If you've caught yourself with outstretched hands up to your head, clenched teeth, and saying "Stop the whining already!" this read might just be a beginning to a whining's end. 

whiningsend.jpg

Why does my child whine?

1. Whining thrives on unmet needs. Usually that unmet need is attention. Sure, your child probably whines when he/she wants something that he can't have or he/she whines after you've said "no." We will get to that scenario in a minute. If your child is whining, he is getting a response from you. Oddly enough, even negative attention is getting some attention, and the negative attention is helping to fulfill a child's unmet need of attention.

2. Vocabulary. Your child may not have the vocabulary to tell you how he/she is feeling. 

3. H.A.L.T. Is your child hungry, angry, lonely, or tired?

4. Your child has limited control over his life and limited choices.

Why does whining lead to backtalk?

1. Mirroring what is being modeled. Are you reacting or responding to the whining? How does your child perceive your emotions and tone of voice?

2. Is there an atmosphere of power struggles by being too controlling or too permissive?

3. Are you making disrespectful demands or using calm, but firm invitations to cooperate?

4. Disappointment or setting up a situation for frustration/failure.

What can I do?

1. Put down your electronic device. Make eye contact.

2. Depending on the scenario, use physical touch such as a hug, sitting side by side, or a "tickle spider."

3. Reflect with your words how your child is feeling. "You're feeling disappointed you can't go to the park today. You really were looking forward to that."

4. Give choices within your boundaries. "You really want a snack right now. We will have dinner in 20 minutes. You can choose _____or______for snack before bed."

5. Use your sense of humor and laugh. It's ok not to be serious all of the time. Gain some perspective, view behavior as age appropriate, and see the humor in situations with children. Sometimes we misperceive being silly for disrespect. A laugh or a quick joke could diffuse a situation that could have otherwise turned into an unintentional power struggle.

6. Set up a routine or schedule board. Welcome you child's input into creating the schedule. Your child will feel ownership and will feel heard if he is allowed to make some choices or help create the schedule board.

7. If there is a hidden message behind the whine, try to meet that need: Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? Unloved? Reality check: If we as parents are also feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, isn't it that much more difficult to deal with our kids' difficult behaviors?

8. Practice self care. Refresh. Relax. Play.

9. During a peaceful or happy time, brainstorm with your child how she can ask for something without whining. Practice. Role play. Point out the difference between a whiney voice and a respectful, age appropriate voice.

Ignore the whining and find lots of ways to encourage your child.
— Positive Discipline A-Z by Nelsen, Lott, & Glenn

10. Apologize if you have spoken disrespectfully. Model respectful requests and avoid comebacks. 

11. Share your feelings: "My feelings are hurt when you talk to me that way. I am going into the other room until you are ready to talk to me respectfully."

12. Instead of a command, "Pick up that toy before you leave." Try saying, "What about that toy?"

13. Ask your child to repeat to you what you just said. "What was my answer to that?" 

Hopefully some of these tips/tricks you will find useful depending on the situation and the child. Thanks goes to one of my favorite books to help guide this discussion: Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott, and H. Stephen Glenn. Sprinkled with some personal experiences, of course.

Kelly

Expressive Arts in Counseling

At the Playroom Lubbock we offer individual and group counseling to kids and teens. You've probably heard us talk about play therapy (using toys as a safe medium for expression) and sandtray (using toys/figures in the sand), but what is "expressive arts" that we talk about?  Quite simply, expressive arts is an opportunity to use the arts to safely express oneself and through the process, learn by doing. It uses the arts as a basis for discovery and change. The arts can include art materials, dramatic play, acting, music, dancing, or other artful movements. The emphasis is on the process rather than the product. No previous art background is needed.

 

image.jpg

When will expressive arts be used at The Playroom Lubbock?

Kids in individual counseling have the opportunity to spontaneously engage in expressive arts because of the assortment of expressive arts materials and toys available to them in the therapy playrooms. The counselor may also incorporate expressive art activities into group counseling or kids groups.

How does the creative process produce change?

Carl Rogers explains that under certain conditions, a person (child) is free to be creative, to be himself, and be open to a new experience of self awareness and change. 

If offered in a safe, empathic, non-judgmental environment, it is a transformative process for constructive change.
— Natalie Rogers in "Giving Life to Carl Rogers Theory of Creativity"

The counselor 1. accepts the child as having unconditional worth 2. listens with empathy and shows understanding of the child through nonverbals and reflective statements 3. provides a non judgmental climate by not making evaluative or critical statements regarding the child or what the child is doing.

The counselor trusts the process that the child (with the help of a safe therapeutic relationship) will take his/her experiences, perceptions, and potential where and when the child needs. *However, there are boundaries and limit setting which can be explained in an entirely other blog post.

A child's expressive art is an image or metaphor representing a child's perspectives, experiences, desires, fears, and goals. Once a child feels emotionally safe and psychologically free, he is able to blossom.  It is through the process of creativity that a child gains awareness, resolve, and ideas to move forward. It is not through a counselor's interpretation or analysis of a child's creative product that brings change.

expressivearts.jpg

What is the ultimate goal for counseling?

You may have very specific goals for your child. For example, control his temper, obey the rules, not be so impulsive, not be anxious, play better with others, learn social skills, etc...Play therapy, expressive arts, and sandtray therapy will address all of those. However, the ultimate life goals for kids (and adults) is to 1. adjust, change, and seek new experiences 2. be yourself in the present moment 3. trust yourself to make the right choices and take responsibility for your choices and 4. treat others with positive regard, respect, and love.

changeandtherapy.jpg

Anger Serves a Purpose

What We Know about Anger:

1. Anger is a natural emotion that varies in intensity.

2. Physiological and biological changes occur with anger (heart rate, blood pressure, adrenaline, and noradrenaline increase)

3. Some kids are more easily angered than others. This can be a result of genetics, sociocultural factors (for example, not being allowed to display the emotion), or family background.

People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a low tolerance for frustration.
— Turner, Erlanger. "Tips on Helping Your Child Cope with Anger." Psychology Today, April 10, 2013

4. Subtle forms of anger in children may include pouting, sulking, and whining.

5. Anger can be a response to danger, a form of self-expression, or a declaration of independence. It can also be a symptom of being hungry, tired, or lonely.

6. Emotions under the surface of anger could be: embarrassment, annoyance, shame, guilt, grief, nervousness, insecurity, disappointment, frustration, helplessness, jealousy, regret, hurt, pressure, rejection, fear, inadequacy, or loneliness. 

Anger serves a purpose to communicate a child's unmet need. Through being aware, listening, teaching, modeling, and accepting the emotion, anger can be productive rather than destructive. Relieving rather than damaging. Insightful rather than unacceptable. Motivating rather than suppressing.

Strategies for Purposeful Anger for Children

1. Listen, Listen, Listen. Listening may include increasing your awareness prior to any outbursts of anger. What or who has changed for the child in the environment? What other feelings is the child showing? Any other physical symptoms? What is your child doing differently from his/her typical responses or routines? Listen, Listen, Listen also means the obvious for verbal kids: Listen to his/her story without any interruptions or suggestions.

2.  Teach and Model: Teach your child to identify the physical responses of anger: feeling hot? heart racing? eyes tearing up? fists clenching? grinding teeth? Put a name to feelings: decide on a feeling name for those responses and put it to use: "I am feeling so ________." Or "You're feeling really ______." Model your own anger managing behaviors by expressing the feeling, verbalizing how you will calm down, and verbalizing your choices.

3. Calm Down: Use some calming strategies when your child feels the symptoms of anger. Ideas are: taking deep breath, blowing into a pinwheel, blowing bubbles, squeezing silly putty, drinking a glass of water, playing alone, shaking sensory bottles, throwing wet sponges outside, stomping on an empty egg carton, drawing, journaling, doodling, listening to music, taking a walk, screaming in a pillow, etc. Giving your child calm down choices helps to reduce frustration, especially frustration that is a result of feeling of powerlessness or helplessness. If your child is feeling out of control and at risk of hurting himself or another person, separate her from that person or from a room/objects that aren't safe. Stop the action and restore safety. We love these 26 phrases for calming down an angry child: Click Here

4. Give Choices: This really only is helpful when a child has calmed down and all physiological responses have decreased. Look for possible solutions that may include compromising or apologizing.

5. Set Limits: Remind your child of limits to aggression. For example, "Hands aren't for hitting. If you choose to hit, you choose to not play right now." "Our family rules about cussing at people are ______. You can choose to write out your thoughts or doodle in your notebook. If you choose to cuss at your sister you choose to ___________(insert consequence)." If your child continues to break the limit, follow through with the consequence. 

6. Teach empathy and forgiveness: Children need your help with learning empathy. Without using guilt or shame, talk  about what another person's perspective might be. What are some options of expressing herself about her own perspective? Regarding forgiveness, apologies  can help kids move from guilty feelings to hopeful feelings that they can do better. Reassuring your child of your love communicates that their anger or angry behavior doesn't make him a bad kid or an unloved kid.

When Anger is Crying for Help

When anger persists and interferes with relationships with family or friends, remember that the purpose of anger is to communicate an unmet need. Are there threats to safety? Deep tensions in the family? A  developmental delay in language or social skills? Some kind of loss? If you're concerned about your child's anger, discuss this with a mental health professional. You're welcome to start with us at The Playroom Lubbock.

More on Brain Science and Resetting Your Body

Check out our other article here about the neurobiology behind anger, anxiety, and dysregulation.

 

Teenagers, Pit Stops, and Play Therapy

"Developmentally, the process where we travel from a world where we do not have to think about who we are or what we do (childhood) toward a destination where we must have the confidence that we can not only survive but also thrive in the multiple relationships and expectations of adult society....[Adolescence is] the overall task of moving out of childhood and preparing to engage in mainstream society as a peer with other adults." Chap Clark, D. Clark (2007). Disconnected Parenting: Teens in a MySpace World.

What a task and a road ahead for a teenager!  This road consisting of life events and experiences coupled with experiences of the past and paired with expectations and possibly fears of the future significantly affects adolescents. The emotional, physical, and hormonal changes of adolescents will alter the headlights of that adolescent vehicle and impact a teenager's ability to process and interpret social interactions. Further more, the challenges a teen with special needs has may be magnified during this developmental stage. 

IMG_8091.JPG

Any adolescent is fully capable of navigating through this road trip, especially with the support of peer relationships, parent involvement, and a developing positive image.

You, as parents, are fully capable of supporting your adolescent during this adventure. Pack your bags with suitcases labeled "my child" rather than "my child's problems." "The present" rather than "the past." "Feelings." "Understanding." "Accepting." As soon as you see yourself capable of this adventure, you will begin to see your teenager as capable of this adventure.

Relationships then, (with peers, parents, caregivers) are the vehicle for change. Conveying these messages to your teen "I am here," "I hear you," "I understand," and "I care" will equip your teen to recover from the bumps in the road or to get back on track from a detour. (Messages taken from Child Parent Relationship Therapy: A 10 Session Filial Therapy Model by Landreth, G., & Bratton, S.)

vehicle for change

Reality is that we have to service our vehicles. Sometimes getting your vehicle serviced means taking it into the shop to a professional. 1 in 5 adolescents will experience significant symptoms of emotional distress (Report on Adolescent Health: cdcinfo@cdc.gov).

Teenagers are likely to feel reluctant, suspicious, worried, intimidated, or even weird going to a professional such as a counselor. That is why the metaphor of taking a car into the shop or a "pit" stop to be able to get back on track is effective when talking to teens.

pitstop.jpg

"Play" provides a metaphor for teenagers to safely express what is bothering them without really having to talk about it. Play therapy with adolescents does not involve sitting on the floor together with a counselor playing baby dolls or army men. In play therapy with adolescents, the teen has the control what to reveal or keep hidden. Using play, sandtray figures, and expressive techniques will stimulate the teenager's desire and need to be expressive and create identity--which is central to this developmental stage. The positive therapeutic relationship that develops between a teenager and a counselor brings healing, forward movement, and relief of emotional stress. 

At The Playroom Lubbock we have Kelly Martin, a licensed professional counselor and registered play therapist trained in play therapy. She has  a "playroom" designed for play or activity therapy for preteens and teens.  

Providing optimal and collaborative therapy solutions for kids--of any age. Of any ability.