This series on the neuroscience of teenage anxiety was inspired by Catherine Pittman and Elizabeth Karle’s book, “Rewire Your Anxious Brain.”
Welcome to the third and final part of our teenage anxiety series. In Part 1, we introduced you to the two parts of the brain that create anxiety: the amygdala and the cerebral cortex. In Part 2, we described common signs of amygdala-driven anxiety in a teenager and offered a variety of strategies for mitigating it.
This week, we’re focusing on the cerebral cortex—the thinking part of the brain. Troubling memories, thoughts, interpretations, assumptions, and visualizations that arise in the cerebral cortex can cause anxiety when the amygdala reacts to them.
Signs of cortex-driven anxiety in a teenager
If you’re the parent or guardian of an anxious youth, you may be wondering what causes teenage anxiety. Sometimes a teen’s stress response is triggered by sensory information the amygdala associates with danger. Other times, the amygdala reacts to troubling thoughts, memories, or interpretations occurring in the cerebral cortex.
If your teen is struggling with cortex-driven anxiety, they might have a habit of interpreting situations in the worst possible light. Seemingly innocuous situations might set them off. Your teen might spend a lot of time worrying about the past, replaying events in their head and imagining what they should have done differently. They might also ruminate about the future, imagining worst-case scenarios.
If your teen has cortex-driven anxiety, they might also struggle with obsessions, perfectionism, black-and-white thinking, hypervigilance, guilt, or shame.
How to deal with cortex-driven anxiety: 10 tips
If your teen’s anxiety seems to be originating in the cerebral cortex, the tips below can help you support them more effectively. To help your teen understand cortex-driven anxiety and learn how to deal with it, we recommend encouraging them to. . .
1. Learn about the cerebral cortex
Understanding the biology behind cortex-driven anxiety is essential to overcoming it. We recommend reading books on the topic, such as Catherine Pittman and Elizabeth Karle’s book, “Rewire Your Anxious Brain.” We also suggest working with a teen anxiety therapist who understands the value of a neuroscience-informed approach.
2. Practice self-monitoring skills
Most teens don’t actively pay attention to their emotions—they simply feel them. They don’t pay attention to their thoughts, either—they just think them (and often believe in them). This lack of self-awareness prevents many teens from recognizing thoughts that may be contributing to their anxiety. Teens who learn how to monitor themselves can more easily recognize anxiety-inducing thoughts and disengage from them.
3. Make a plan
Many teens find that it is not easy to stop when they start obsessing and worrying about something. One way to remedy this is to create a contingency plan for whatever they’re worried about. Have your teen write down their fears and make plans for how they will mitigate them. For example, a teen who is worried that they won’t get accepted by their first-choice university could plan to apply to other schools as a backup plan.
4. Keep an open mind
Teach your teen to respect perspectives that differ from their own. Each person has a unique background and individual goals that shape how they view the world. Even though two perspectives may seem incompatible, that doesn’t mean that one person must be right and the other wrong. Both opinions may be equally justified. When teens empathize with differing perspectives, they learn to take their own interpretations less seriously.
5. Look for neutral or positive interpretations
If your teen got a writing assignment back with red writing all over it, what would they think? If they struggle with cortex-driven anxiety, they might jump to the conclusion that they are a hopelessly lousy writer, but that’s just one possible interpretation. Instead, your teen could consider a more positive interpretation: that their teacher thinks they have a lot of potential and is therefore giving them extra attention and helpful feedback.
6. Practice mindfulness
It’s hard to question negative thoughts when you’re wrapped up in them. That’s why we recommend teens distance themselves from their thoughts by observing them without judgment. For example, a teen who is thinking, “I’m so bad at math! I’ll never be good at it,” might instead think, “That’s interesting. I’m having some negative thoughts about myself.” Making this leap isn’t easy, but mindfulness exercises, such as meditation, can help.
7. Displace anxious thoughts
It’s impossible to get rid of anxious thoughts by trying not to think about them. For most people, the cerebral cortex rarely slows down, so a better strategy for most teens is to change what they’re thinking about. A teen who can’t stop thinking about the fight he had with his friends that afternoon might distract himself by putting in earbuds and listening to his favorite band. Similarly, a teen who is catastrophizing about how everyone will laugh at her presentation could turn her attention to her favorite hobby, sport, or game.
8. Give people the benefit of the doubt
Teens with cortex-driven anxiety often assume the worst in people. This is especially true for teens who have experienced abuse or bullying. For example, imagine a teen who is planning a birthday party for her best friend. She asks her friend whether she wants store-bought cake or homemade, and her friend says she doesn’t care. If the party-planning teen assumes the worst, she might interpret her friend’s comment as being unappreciative. On the contrary, the birthday girl may be so appreciative that she is unwilling to make any requests that would create more work for her friend.
9. Question pessimistic thoughts
The cerebral cortex is surprisingly prone to misinterpretations and errors, but these can often be debunked by looking for evidence to the contrary. For example, a student who receives a D on her exam might think to herself, “I am so stupid!” However, by looking for evidence to the contrary, she can recall instances that prove her high intelligence, such as her mastery of a sport or high marks in another class.
10. Boost dopamine levels
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of motivation and reward. Research suggests that low dopamine levels can cause negative, anxiety-inducing thoughts. Anxious teens can often find relief by engaging in dopamine-boosting activities such as running, playing sports, and doing yoga. Eating plenty of fiber, whole grains, and healthy fats can also keep dopamine levels high.
Help Your Teen Better Manage Their Anxiety
If your child can benefit from teenage anxiety treatment, reach out to one of our adolescent specialists. Using science-driven strategies, we can help your teen better manage their anxiety. Send us a message or book a free 20 minute consultation with Dr. Barajas or Dr. Goldman.