Fear and anxiety can cause the brain to “down-shift”. Dr Arlene Taylor shares some advice and tips on how to get our brains back into high gear.
“Except for a mumbled word or two, Jon hasn’t really talked to us for three weeks,” the woman said, tearfully. “And he flunked his math’s test last Friday,” said the man. “Not like him at all.”
The counselor regarded the middle-aged couple who sat across the table from him, obviously concerned about their 14-year-old son.
“Did he used to talk with you?” the counsellor asked. The father nodded. “Always,” said the mother. Then silence.
“What triggered the change? Alterations in behavior never arise out of a vacuum. Every pathology has an ecology—every problem a contributory environment.”
The father looked out of the window, seemingly studying the massive pine trees that reached for the sky. The mother looked at the floor, twisting the corners of her scarf.
“Things have been a bit tense at home lately,” the mother said finally, glancing at her husband.
“I was fired after 25 years on the job,” the father said, his voice a mix of frustration and fear.
“We began arguing over everything,” said his wife. “We even argued about arguing. A few weeks ago it escalated into a screaming match. When Jon tried to intervene, we screamed at him, too. It was as if a blind dropped down behind his eyes. It’s still there. Except for answering direct questions with a word or two, he’s been non-communicative.”
“Jon’s brain may have downshifted,” the counselor said. “It’s a natural brain phenomenon that can be triggered by anxiety or fear. Let me explain. Think about the three functional layers of the brain as if they’re gears in an automatic transmission. When the vehicle encounters a hill, it kicks back to a lower gear to deal with the extra strain. Similarly, in the face of fear or anxiety, the brain directs its energy and attention to lower brain layers, searching for functions to help it feel safer. Downshifting interferes with easy access to third layer conscious cognitive functions such as meaningful communication.
“Your brains were probably downshifted when you were arguing. Out of the stress responses housed in the first layer, you chose fight. Jon appears to have selected flight, at least from communication. Both boys and girls can develop anxiety when parents argue or divorce, but studies suggest that boys’ brains may be at higher risk of downshifting in the presence of such behaviors. This can derail communication and learning both at home and at school. In some cases it can take several years before the boy’s brain returns to learning readiness.”
“But we’re not divorcing!” the couple exclaimed in unison.
“Does Jon know that?” asked the counselor. “He may fear that separation is the next step.”
“How do we get his brain to shift back?” said his mother, tears now sliding silently down her face.
“Well, the bad news is that while your fighting can trigger downshifting in his brain, you cannot force it to upshift. That may be one reason Scripture clearly recommends avoiding fear and anxiety.”
The silence was deafening as that information soaked in.
“There is some good news. Since downshifting occurs in response to fear, anxiety, trauma or perceived threat (all things that make the brain feel helpless), you can set up a safer environment. Under conditions of perceived safety, the brain may upshift on its own. I recommend you talk honestly with your son. Apologize for allowing the stress of job-loss express itself through negative behaviors. Be honest about how difficult job-loss is for you and the steps you’re taking to look for work. Reaffirm how much you love him and each other and share your hope for a positive future.”
The couple nodded. Their counselor recommended some strategies that can help a downshifted brain feel safe enough to upshift:
1. Short, Simple Statements
A portion of the brain’s pain/pleasure centre rarely matures emotionally beyond the age of a four or five-year-old. Short, simple instructions are usually most effective. This is not “talking down” to the person. Rather, it is recognizing that this style is likely to be more effective when communicating with a downshifted brain.
2. Positive, Present-Tense Words
The brain thinks in pictures. Positive statements involve a one-step process. “Put your homework in your backpack now” is easy to picture. But “don’t forget your homework” doesn’t create a clear mental image. And “take your homework to school tomorrow” requires the brain to hold the image until the next day.
3. Be Congruent
How you really feel tends to leak out in tone of voice and body language, regardless of the actual words you use. To avoid mixed messages, your words, voice tonality and nonverbals need to be congruent—matching and in harmony. If the topic is serious, use a solemn facial expression. If happy, be sure to smile.
4. Avoid Asking Why
The word Why can imply an expectation that you should have done something different from what you actually did. This can create enough anxiety to trigger downshifting. The response to “Why did you do that?” or “Why didn’t you do that?” is often a shrug or a mumbled “Don’t know”. And the brain likely does not know. Try instead:
n When you made this choice what did you think might happen?
n What could you do differently in the future to achieve a different result?
5. Sit Down to Talk
The brain tends to feel more comfortable when both parties are at eye level. Speak in a calm, steady, moderately-pitched voice. Listen to the words the other person uses, watch his or her body language, and mirror the other person’s words and communication style—auditory, visual or kinaesthetic.
6. Ask for the Other Person’s Input
Listening can promote a feeling of being heard and even understood, whether or not you agree with the perspective. Even when you differ, it’s not always necessary to point out areas of disagreement. Try to identify commonality. Ask yourself, “Will this make any difference 12 months from now?” If the answer is no, avoid wasting time and energy on it. If the answer is yes, agree to disagree or negotiate a consensus, understanding that the solution will work only partially for both parties and there will need to be areas of compromise.
7. Offer Options
The brain feels safer when it can choose. Whenever possible offer two options (and only two because the brain has two cerebral hemispheres). “Will you take the chair or the stool?” “Do you prefer water or juice?” “Do you want the door open or closed?” If there is no option for an entire decision, provide an option to exercise some control over part of an activity.
“How far the brain downshifts and when and if it upshifts depends on the degree of threat that brain perceives,” the counselor said.
“Keep using the strategies and avoid engaging in behaviors that can trigger downshifting.
“According to evangelist Chuck Swindoll, each day of our lives we make deposits in the memory banks of our children. What memories do you want Jon to have of his childhood?”
“Not of arguing and fighting!” exclaimed the father. “We’re on it. The only way is up!” The couple left, hand in hand.