The Link Between Anxiety and Meltdowns

Written by Yvonne Newbold

Anxiety is a funny old word. We’re told that it is what causes much of our children’s aggressive behaviour, yet when we think of the word “anxiety”, it conjures up images of passivity, withdrawal, nervousness and timidity. It sounds completely at odds with what a full-blown aggressive meltdown looks like, with its fury, passion, power and destructiveness.

Yet, if we unpick how we experience feeling anxious ourselves, it can make it easier to understand the connection between anxiety and the extreme behaviour we sometimes see in our children. Our anxieties often stem from fear, with one layer of fear stacked on top of another and then another. If we’re running late in the morning, we can reach that stage of impending doom when we know that there’s nothing we can do that will make up that lost time, and that we are inevitably going to be late, with lots of explaining to do, lots of humble pie to eat and maybe unpleasant consequences to face up to.

As we run about trying to get ready extra quickly, the fear of what might happen as a result of our tardiness can escalate until it’s consuming all our brainpower. We are experiencing fear, fear of possibly being reprimanded for being late, fear of possibly losing face among our peers because we are late, and those fears can quickly start to run out of control. We can play out in our heads a potential chain of events whereby being late might lead us to losing our job, which will lead us to having no income, which could mean we’ll lose our house – and before long, just because we overslept by 20 minutes, we start to imagine the whole structure of our lives completely unravelling and falling apart. It’s frightening.

Once we can see the link between anxiety and fear, it becomes much easier to see how anxiety can impact so forcefully on our children. If we think of what they are experiencing as “fear” instead of “anxiety” we can begin to understand what’s going on much more clearly.

When we become fearful, the “fight and flight” mechanism takes over. This mechanism is part of our autonomic nervous system, and it’s largely beyond our conscious control, in much the same way as our blinking or breathing are too. This mechanism is part of our survival instinct, and it was extremely effective in ensuring that mankind survived thousands of years ago when the world was a very different place.

Back then, when our ancestors lived in caves, frightening experiences often meant that our lives were in acute danger. Perhaps we’d just bumped into a grizzly bear in the forest who was eyeing us up as their next meal. The “Fight or Flight” response is perfect for this sort of situation. It empowers our bodies to either “fight” the bear until one of us would be dead, or it would enable “flight” so that we were able to run faster than we’d ever thought possible. Hopefully, we could sprint faster than the bear could run, to ensure we were able to escape. “Fight or Flight” was life or death, and our bodies response to a threat was almost instantaneous.

Huge amounts of adrenaline would be released which would mean our heart rate and breathing got faster and our blood pressure increased. It would give us an enormous burst of energy and strength which would focus on our muscle groups. There would be a corresponding reduction in our brain power and digestion to conserve energy and allow it to flow where it was most needed. Our senses would become much more attuned to the world around us, so that we were hyper focused and sensitive to the tiniest noise or nearby movement.

Generally, the whole thing would be over in a matter of minutes, and during that time we’d have expended so much energy that the adrenaline quickly worked its way through our systems and and out of our bodies very quickly. If we had successfully fought the bear and come out alive, then our bodies would recover in no time at all, and we’d be restored to peace and calm.

Over time, society evolved and civilisation developed, and we’re now at a point where it’s highly unlikely that we’d ever encounter a grizzly bear on the local high street. However, our bodies haven’t evolved, they have not adapted to a different sort of response that might be better equipped to the types of fears and stresses that affect someone in the twenty-first century.

So when we see our children having a meltdown of tornado intensity, what we’re actually seeing is their bodies responding exactly how they have been pre-programmed to respond when they are extremely frightened and distressed. It’s not that they are being naughty, or that they are going off the rails, nor that they are having a temper tantrum. They are reacting in the way they are supposed to react. Their heart rate will be faster, they’ll have high blood pressure, they’ll be breathing more rapidly and their senses will be on high alert. Yet despite having super-attuned hearing their brain is incapable of taking on board much of what your are saying, because their brain will have largely shut down so that all of that super-charged surge of strength and energy is focused in the muscles.

They are not fighting you, they are not smashing up the house, in that moment they are fighting for their very survival. When the fight or flight instinct kicks in properly, even after all these thousands of years, it’s still all about staying alive. This is instinctive, a perfectly natural response to extreme fear and distress. In exactly the same way that their body would take over and ensure that they had a rigourous coughing session if they swallowed something down the wrong way, so their body is ensuring that they are able to respond with aggression when they feel threatened.

It may not look like deep anguish, intense terror or upset, but that is exactly what this is. They need us to be the very best person we can possibly be right now, to support them and help to lead them back to emotional safety. This isn’t something that sanctions will sort out, this isn’t the time to remonstrate or to remove privileges. Think about other times they have been frightened, hurt and full of pain. Perhaps when they have fallen or cut their knee, or when they have woken up from a bad dream and have been scared of the dark. You didn’t tell them off or take away their ipad then. No, instead you reassured them, you held them tight, and you loved them a little bit more. When they are in a meltdown it’s like a cut knee or a bad dream, but a thousand times worse. They need our help and our non-judgemental acceptance, but most of all they need us to show them that things can be OK again.

So with violent and challenging behaviour, we shouldn’t be trying to change the behaviour at all. We should be looking at what has caused our children to become this frightened and this distressed, and work with them to explore ways of helping them feel safe within their own environment. There aren’t any overnight solutions or quick fixes, but with lots of patience, love, determination and a sense of humour, things can radically change for the better for everyone in the family.

Knowing what causes meltdowns is the first step towards preventing future ones. Your child doesn’t want to feel like this, their meltdowns hurt them every bit as much, if not more than they hurt you. You’re on the same side, you’re in this together, you are a team. Never give up hope and never stop believing in your child, because together you will turn this around.