Two of the most commonly used words used when talking about mental health issues are anxiety and depression. Many times either one or both of these diagnoses will come up when a person struggles with mental health issues, behavioral problems, or addiction. Both can be underlying issues contributing to some of the challenges that some teens face today, like screen addiction, drug or alcohol use, cutting, promiscuity, or other problems. However, the terms “anxiety” and “depression” can be somewhat confusing due to how commonly they are used. We might not have an understanding of how these terms apply to problematic issues or psychiatric concerns.
Communication Within the Mind
Dr. Hans Watson describes the brain mechanisms of anxiety and depression to Fire Mountain’s Aaron Huey on the podcast “Anxiety and Depression: THE REAL DEAL.” Dr. Watson describes how anxiety—which can lead to depression—is rooted in the communication between parts of the brain. Our limbic system, most notably the amygdala, recognizes threats to protect us from harm. This system is much like an alarm going off, warning us about potential dangers in our environment. Our frontal lobes then analyze this information and threat detection to determine the reality of the threat. When a person is continuously feeling threatened or as if they are in imminent danger, they might experience anxiety as a result. To heal from this anxiety, they might need to learn to analyze the reality of threats.
Building Executive Functioning Skills
Our brains’ frontal lobe is responsible for executive functioning, which helps us plan, evaluate, and execute deliberate actions. The limbic system might be more akin to our “knee-jerk” reactions, while the frontal lobe is the conscious and thoughtful parts of our brains. This is the part of our brain that says, “Hold on; let’s think about this first.” Dr. Watson’s approach to treating anxiety and depression increases executive functioning skills relating to threat assessment. Kids can do things like giving themselves reality checks when they’re imagining the worst-case scenarios or fearing that bad things will always happen.
The great thing about this approach to treating anxiety and depression is that this approach strengthens a skill to combat the issue. Rather than just having a client vent or complain about what is going wrong, this approach puts them into the driver’s seat by building these skills. Once the mind can begin comprehending the difference between real and imagined threats or evaluate a worst-case scenario’s realistic potential, the mind can operate more smoothly and optimally. When the mind is free from the constant fear of catastrophe, then the limbic system can begin to experience and process emotions.
The Limbic System and Emotions
Being in a constant state of fear can inhibit a person from fully experiencing emotions. When the limbic system is not gaining reassurance from the frontal lobe to calm the threat response, the limbic system cannot complete its essential role in experiencing and processing emotions. Emotions like joy, sadness, relief, delight, and others, are rooted within the limbic system. When a person is experiencing chronic anxiety, their limbic system cannot flood them with appropriate emotions in response to whatever is occurring in their lives. They might not properly process their feelings, as they are constantly dealing with fear. The communication between the limbic system and the frontal lobe plays a crucial role in our planning and executive functioning.
The brain requires this back and forth between the limbic system and frontal lobe to effectively make decisions. The brain first must evaluate danger and threats in order to move forward in planning. The limbic system sets off an alarm to begin this process. Once the frontal lobe gives the “all-clear” of threat evaluation, then the limbic system can allow us to experience emotions. The frontal lobe once again evaluates these emotions to make decisions. For example, if an action makes us feel joy, we might want to repeat this action. When something makes us feel regretful, we want to avoid this action.
Bringing It All Together
Children and teens are developing their minds and building their executive functioning skills as they grow up. When these skills are disrupted due to anxiety, they might have difficulty experiencing emotions and planning goals. If our kids are always plagued by fear, they might start to feel hopeless and helpless, leading to depression. We might feel like they need to “snap out of it” or just get on with their lives. Unfortunately, these feelings can be paralyzing, and snapping out of things might not be realistic. Some medications can help to increase communication between the limbic system and frontal lobe. However, medications will not necessarily be a cure. By consistently learning to evaluate threats with reality checks, teens can learn to build practical executive skills to help them throughout their lifetime.
Anxiety and depression are common among teens with problematic behavioral issues or addiction. These terms can be confusing, as we might not understand the difference between “normal” anxiety, like stage-fright, and clinical definitions of anxiety. Depression can also look like normal feelings of grief or despair that a person may need to process. Determining whether these are appropriate emotional responses or concerning problems can be confusing. Often, clinical diagnoses depend upon how disruptive these feelings are. If your kid struggles to get out of bed every day due to intense anxiety or a depressed mood, they might need interventions and support. Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center is available to help you evaluate what is happening with your child. We understand that parents want to get their kids back and just wish that they could “snap out of it.” If your child needs help with their struggles, and you are unsure of what to do, call us today at (303) 443-3343. We’re here to help your family’s fire burn brightest.