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The Teenage Brain

Last month, I attended a seminar hosted by Dr Kate Owen called ‘Understanding your Teenager’. Dr. Owen discussed practical and useful information regarding how to communicate effectively with teenagers, as well as information regarding how the teenage brain works.

There are two crucial times in your child’s life when they require your attention the most – the first 3 years of life and the adolescent years. However, your child requires different types of attention in these two periods. In the first 3 years, they require you to help them develop basic learning and cognitive skills. In their teenage years, your child requires emotional support and guidance. The teenage years are a time for learning values, developing personal characteristics and a sense of ‘Who Am I?’. All of this is critical for who they will develop into as an adult.

Although your teenager may be looking and trying to act more like an adult, their brain is far from being a fully developed adult brain yet. In fact, the brain does not fully mature until the age of 25 (on average). During the teenage years, the ‘thinking’ part of the brain shuts down to re-wire itself for roughly 3 years. Therefore, the ‘emotional’ part of the brain (the amygdala), which is connected to impulses, emotions and, aggression, takes over. This is the same brain of the brain which is dominant that your child from the ages of 3-7 years old. So those tantrums that happened when your teenager was a child are about to make a comeback!

This ‘emotional’ part of the brain being dominant explains why your teen's behaviour might sometimes seem more erratic or emotional in their adolescent years. The amygdala is on high alert but lacks a filter for reasoning. So, if you have a blank, expressionless face, your teenager may interpret this as hostility or aggression. This is also why your teenager may struggle to express how they are feeling. They could be acting up and you may ask them “What is wrong you?” or “Why are you acting like this?” and they will not have the ability to articulate how or why they are feeling or acting that way.

Every parent is bound to have some difficult times with their teenagers. Here are some tips for effectively improving communication and navigating those difficult times with your teenagers:

  1. Adjust your expectations: You need to be realistic about what your teenager can emotionally understand. Remember, the reasoning part of their brain is on shut down, so complex decision making and emotional regulation are not their strong suit.

  2. Communication: Communication is key! Talk to your teenager like you did when they were 3-7 years old, as they are now dominated by that same part of the brain. Give them simple instructions (one thing at a time) and lots of eye contact.

  3. Body language: Remember that your teenager’s amygdala is on high alert, so they are scanning their environment for ‘danger’. Make sure you have an open and friendly facial expression, tone of voice and body posture.

  4. Calm the body and mind: Teenagers are better at communicating when they are calm. Try practicing some heart focused breathing techniques to regulate the body.

    Heart-focused breathing is about directing your attention to the heart area and breathing a little more deeply than normal. As you breathe in, imagine you are doing so through your heart, and, as you breathe out, imagine it is through your heart. (In the beginning, placing your hand over your heart as you breathe can help you in directing your focus to your heart). Breathe in about 5 to 6 seconds and breathe out 5 to 6 seconds. Be sure your breathing is smooth, unforced and comfortable. Although this is not difficult to do, it may take a little time to become used to it, but eventually, you will establish your own natural rhythm.

    If you find that your teenager is agitated and worked up, try going for a walk or throwing a footy with them. This will help to release cortisol and regulate the body.

  5. Look after yourself: You cannot be emotionally present for your teenager if you are not calm yourself. Remember, your teenager is scanning you, and emotions can be contagious! Make sure that you practice self-care for yourself so that you can have effective communication with your teenager.

If you are struggling with your teenager and would like some more information, call us on 55 207 705 to make an appointment with one of our psychologists. For more information regarding Dr. Kate Owen, visit https://www.drkateowen.com/

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How Trauma Affects the Brain

Earlier this month, I attended training conducted by Blue Knot which focused on how to work therapeutically with complex trauma clients. It astounded me just how much trauma can affect sufferers; not only in emotional and behavioural aspects, but in neurological aspects as well.

So, what is trauma? Trauma is a state of high arousal in which normal coping mechanisms are overwhelmed in response to the perception of threat. There are many types of trauma, such as attachment trauma, developmental trauma and, single incident trauma. The training that I attended focused on the effects of complex trauma, which is when someone has endured multiple types of trauma. It is the product of overwhelming stress which is interpersonally generated. Examples include ongoing abuse (e.g. by a family member), community violence, war and, genocide. Complex trauma has long term impacts on the victim, as well as their family, friends, children and future generations.

Complex trauma has profound effects on the brain. Specifically, the emotional part of the brain (the amygdala) is overactive due to constantly being in survivor mode. As a result, the memory part of the brain (the hippocampus) is constantly activated which means the client is always running on adrenaline. For those clients who cannot remember their trauma, their hippocampus may have shrunk as a result of their trauma. Because the amygdala and the hippocampus are constantly running a hundred miles an hour, this affects the thinking and planning part of the brain (the cerebral cortex) and can cause it to go offline. This means that for some trauma survivors, they struggle to plan and make decisions in meaningful aspects of their life.

Because the brain operates a differently for trauma survivors, they may find themselves being in a state of hyper-arousal (rapid heart rate; shaking and can’t sit still) or hypo-arousal (flat affect; feeling numb or like they might collapse). If you are a trauma survivor and you think you might be hyper-aroused, try standing up and ‘shaking it out’ by shaking your arms, legs and, body. This will help to release the cortisol in your body. You can also practice doing long exhales, which will help to slow your heartbeat down. If you feel like you are in a state of hypo-arousal, try going for a leisurely walk to increase your heart rate. You can also practice increasing your inhale by taking a long inhale and taking short outbreath. It may help if you make a short ‘ha’ sounds when exhaling.

If someone has endured complex trauma, it is important that they seek support from a professional who can engage in trauma-informed practice. The five key principles of trauma-informed practice include safety, trustworthiness, collaboration, choice and, empowerment. A lot of these principles pose an emphasis on giving the client a say in their therapeutic process, as it is important that they feel involved in choice-making and have a sense of control over their life.

If you would like to book an appointment with one of our psychologists for trauma therapy, call us on 55 207 705.

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Farewell Drop of Life!

It is with mixed emotions that I write this letter. As some of you know, I will leave the clinic this week as I am moving back to the Netherlands to be closer to my family and to continue working there in the mental health field. This was not an easy decision to make because Drop of Life has meant so much more to me than just a workplace.

Let me take this moment to express my gratitude for all the support and kindness that I have received from all of you. I am so lucky to have met you all and to call you my friends.

A special thanks to Natalie Turvey, who has been my supervisor for the last 1.5 years. Under your guidance, I have learnt so much more. I can honestly say that you have been the main source of my significant growth in the field of psychology by inspiring me to challenge myself and take on new opportunities while working under the roof of Drop of Life.

It has been such a pleasure to work with you all!

 

You and I will meet again, When we’re least expecting it, One day in some far off place, I will recognize your face, I won’t say goodbye my friend, For you and I will meet again.” -Tom Petty

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“Don’t Worry About a Thing”

As my home country, Jamaica, recently celebrated 57 years of Independence I celebrated with them – putting on some Bob Marley music that the whole world knows and loves. One of the songs (Three Little Birds) had lines therein that inspired the title of this post. He sang, “don’t worry about a thing, because every little thing is going to be alright”. For so many of the clients I see who experience high levels of anxiety (the emotion), there is often the accompanying experience of worry (the thoughts). The combination of the two often leads to the individual’s experience of significant levels of distress and can result in a number of serious mental health concerns.

In psychology, there are different ways in which we understand the nature of anxiety and worry thoughts and there are as many varying viewpoints on how we treat with them. Anxiety is most simply defined as an internal experience of stress, which may involve feelings of nervousness, fear, worry and apprehension. It is also important to know that Anxiety is a future-based emotion – meaning that the focus is always on something that has not happened yet. You may reflect, for a moment, on an experience of anxiety (it can be recent or one further in the past) and notice that while it may have been triggered by something in that moment it was really about something that you believed was going to happen or that you believed could happen.Anxiety is an emotional experience created and made stronger by the nature of the thoughts that we have and usually these thoughts are negative.

But, is all anxiety BAD?

The truth is, some amount of anxiety can be useful in that it gives us information about things in the future that are important to us. Take a job interview, for example, and the anxious feelings about that which may arise. First, we acknowledge that the anxiety is present in this situation because of our thoughts about the future (we might be concerned about whether we will get the job). Secondly, it is giving us some information, which is that this is a job you really want, or it is important to you. Some anxiety can help us to perform well, but too much anxiety can get in the way of us being our best selves in the present.

Worry takes a toll!

Worry tends to go hand in hand with anxiety and it is the thought process, the self-talk that keeps running on a loop in our mind when we are anxious. Anxiety can also result in physical symptoms and these tend to vary across different people. Noticing what happens in your body is an important first step in coping with anxiety, because you can be alerted to the warning signs of when you are becoming anxious.

 

Get out of your worry loop and back into your body

To get out of the mind, sit or lie down in a quiet place. Close your eyes and feel your body – focus on where the sensations are and bring awareness to them (you do not have to do anything about them, all you have to do is notice them). Even though these sensations are not pleasant, rest assured, they want to go out. Take deep breaths. Draw the air down into the pit of your stomach, then easily and slowly release it again.

Dealing with anxiety and worry can be a challenging experience and there are different approaches and tools that can support you towards living a better quality of life. If you believe you could use support in terms of managing your own experience of anxiety and worry, contact our team at Drop of Life Psychology Clinic.

 

By: Matthew McKenzie, B.Sc. (Hon.), M.Sc. (Dist.)

Registered Psychologist, Drop of Life Psychology Clinic

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The Impact of our own Attachment Style on our Relationships

Each of us has a certain style of attachment, that impacts on how we find a partner and the way we behave in our romantic relationships. This is the main reason why recognizing our attachment pattern can be important as it can give us the opportunity to understand our own strengths and vulnerabilities in any relationship.

So, what is attachment exactly? Attachment is a deep personal connection that we have with another person who will protect and help to organize our feelings. It consists of two concepts namely care-seeking and exploration whenever there is a safe base to do so. As adults, we will remain attached to our caregivers though we also form attachments to our romantic partners and close friends.

The attachment theory is a well-researched theory in the field of relational psychology. It describes how our early relationships with a primary caregiver, mostly a parent, creates our expectations for how love and relationships should be.

There are four main attachment styles that can help us to identify our own and also help us to understand how this can affect our relationships.

Secure attachment
This is an organized attachment style that occurs when children feel they can rely on their caregivers to attend to their needs of proximity, emotional support and protection. This in return makes the child feel safe and secure. A secure attachment style is important when it comes to creating healthy relationships as an adult. In a secure relationship, we know that we can feel that our needs are met and that we can rely on the other person.

Insecure attachment
This is formed when children cannot rely on their caregivers as they are unresponsive. There are three different insecure attachment styles:

  • Anxious attachment
    Attachment style in which a caregiver has been inconsistent in relation to their availability and responsiveness to the needs of their child. This leads to confusion for the child as it does not know what to expect. These children turn out to be adults that find it difficult to trust their partners and have a high need for attention.
  • Avoidant attachment
    This style develops when a child is neglected by their caregiver and therefore has too much opportunity to explore. While having to opportunity to explore is an essential key to parenting, an underemphasize on the safe base causes children to feel that they are left on their own and do not have an adult to rely on whenever they need help or safety. As adults, they usually will view themselves as highly independent.
  • Disorganized attachment
    Occurs when there has been trauma or abuse in childhood. These children do not feel as if they have a safe and secure base to draw upon and fear their caregivers, or their caregivers are frightened of the child. Children with a disorganized attachment usually exhibit a breakdown in behaviour when the child needs to seek comfort and protection from their caregiver. They learn that they cannot rely on their caregiver regarding care and safety. Instead they know that their caregiver will abuse them regardless of what they do. As adults, they usually will have partners that will show similar behaviour as their caregivers as they are used to inconsistency when they seek connection. Usually these adults will behave in certain ways that will confirm their own negative beliefs that they have formed as a child. These adults that have a disorganized attachment style are at increased risk of anxiety and depression compared to the other insecure attachment styles.

As mentioned previously we know that our attachment styles that we have formed in our childhood usually impact on our behaviour in close relationships as an adult. However, there is good news, we can change and work on our attachment!

The first step to changing an insecure attachment style is to identify sources of our anxious, avoidant or disorganized attachment style. A therapist can help to recognise moments in our life when we experienced certain attachment related behaviours. For example, for people that have disorganized attachments styles there will be most likely past trauma or maltreatment that needs to be addressed in therapy in order to make sense of these past events. The second step will be to identify and focus on our negative thoughts or core beliefs that we have formed in our childhood on basis of our past interactions with our caregivers. In attachment-based therapy, a therapist can support by examining our thoughts that have been formed about ourselves and evaluate these and conclude if these thoughts are true or rather exaggerated or incorrect. Additionally, people who have had caregivers that failed to take care of them, usually struggle to communicate their needs in a relationship. Through counselling, it is possible to improve our communication skills and to learn how to express feelings and needs more clearly.

Eventually, we can notice that an increase in communication can be helpful in our current relationship, or it might be realized that we will never get our needs met in this relationship.

Overall, attachment-based therapy can be really helpful if you feel that you are experiencing issues in your current relationships that might stem from your childhood.

So, if you think that you might have underlying issues related to attachment that might affect your current relationships, feel free to book in with one of our experienced psychologists at Drop of Life!

Sources

Ainsworth MDS, Blehar MC, Waters E, Wall S. Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum; 1978.

Ainsworth MDS. Attachments and Other Affectional Bonds Across the Life Cycle. In: Attachment Across the Life Cycle. Parkes CM, Stevenson-Hinde J, Marris P, eds. London: Routledge; 1991: 33-51.

Bowlby J. The Nature of the Child's Tie to His Mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis.1958;39:350-371.

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