Helping Children Overcome Fear
Cultivating trust in God.
Those who live with faith and trust in God enjoy greater peace of mind, better physical health and far less stress than others. But how does one develop these traits? And, equally important, how does one instill them in one’s children?
Sixteen-year-old Rachel is already well acquainted with stress. A talented young performer, she has experienced her share of auditions. However, despite her abilities - and her successes - Rachel experiences rushes of anxiety with each new challenge. She is now facing the largest competition of her young life: the attempt to secure a rare placement in a specialized academic arts environment geared toward nurturing performers like herself. Thousands of students are participating in the competition for 12 coveted positions. Those who make the grade will be rewarded with superb training and rare opportunities for advancement in their field. Those who are rejected will have to struggle harder to find their eventual place in the art world.
The night before her audition, Rachel’s parents hear her sobbing in her room. Alarmed, they knock on her door. Wiping her tears away, Rachel opens the door for them. Trembling, she tells her parents that she can’t face the examiners. She knows she’s going to ruin her performance. She knows she’s not good enough. Everyone else is more talented.
Mom and dad try to calm their daughter with reassurance. “You have an excellent chance of being accepted! You’re amazing at what you do. And besides, you just have to do your best - the rest is up to the Almighty. If you don’t get accepted, it’s all for the best.”
The kind words and spiritual encouragement fall on deaf ears. Rachel’s fear is blocking her frontal cortex. Her parents might as well be speaking a foreign language; nothing is penetrating. Eventually the parents give up and leave Rachel to settle herself to sleep. Rachel shuts the light and closes her eyes, but the adrenalin-fueled, rapid beating of her heart prevents her from falling asleep. She lies awake for hours in terror.
Two Brains are Better than One
Just a few blocks away, a teenager named Ariella is also experiencing anxiety. She, too, is entering the big competition. But unlike Rachel, Ariella has learned to swim in the deep end of life. Her parents have taught her many skills for dealing with inevitable challenges and the normal emotions that often accompany the risky business of being human: fear of failure, loss, rejection, humiliation and change, fear of the unknown, fear of pain and fear of fear itself. So Ariella is prepared to face her fear head-on and help herself through it.
The longest distance in the world is the distance between the head and the heart.
To begin with, Ariella remembers what her parents taught her: the longest distance in the world is the distance between the head and the heart. Even if we “know” that God is in control and does everything for our benefit, we can freeze in fear, unable to trust Him. When intense fear is triggered, the part of the brain that holds information about faith and trust in God (the left brain, the frontal cortex) often becomes inaccessible. The right brain (the amygdala) sends emergency chemistry throughout the body in order to provide energy for possible threats to the system, effectively cutting off access to important facts stored in other sections of the brain. Under these circumstances, we no longer “know” about God’s power, protection and benevolence. We feel terrified, helpless and alone.
Ariella’s sweaty palms, rapidly beating heart and shortness of breath all tell her that she is only working with half a brain – the anxious half. She needs to get the other half on board in a hurry.
Thanks to her parents, Ariella knows some powerful strategies for accessing the calmer sections of her brain. The first thing she needs to do is turn down the volume of her panic. Feelings of panic inhibit the cortex, making it hard – or impossible – to think properly or remember important information. To put her panic to rest, Ariella begins to breathe in and out rhythmically through her nose – 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out, with no pauses at the top or bottom of the breath. This breathing pattern, known as the coherent breath, quickly calms and soothes the heart through regulating the pattern of heart-rate variability. With the establishment of this new, improved pattern, the heart sends messages to the brain to release calming chemistry into the bloodstream. Now Ariella can think.
Because her mind is now accessible, Ariella realizes what has happened to her. She remembers the explanation her parents gave her about how feelings of anxiety grow in the mind. She remembers that she has a role in producing that anxiety and that she has the power to unproduce it! How did she contribute to the problem? When an anxious thought popped into her mind (like the thought that she wouldn’t be chosen for the program), she played around with it. She re-thought it, visualized it, elaborated on it, re-played it and generally gave it a lot of her time and attention. In doing so, she grew the thought, giving it more and more neural territory in her brain and more and more power. Unfortunately, every moment that a person spends attending to a scary thought, causes fight-or-flight chemistry to be released into every cell of the body. Ariella had spent way too many moments releasing this kind of chemistry and is now suffering the consequences.
The good news is that Ariella remembers that she has free will. She can choose which thoughts she wants to attend to and which thoughts are best left to die of neglect. With panic out of the way, she can now choose from a large menu of happy, encouraging, positive, nurturing thoughts and images. She can choose to put all of her attention on thoughts full of trust in God, using her imagination to see herself under God’s protective wing. Ariella begins to engage with, play around with, focus on, visualize and attend to the kinds of thoughts that make her feel serene: “God is with me; I can do my best and leave the rest up to God; whatever happens, happens and everything happens for the best.” With these thoughts tumbling around her brain,
feelings of calmness and security envelop Ariella; she turns over and falls into a deep, peaceful sleep.
Cultivating Trust in God
There are two steps to building one’s faith and trust in God: (1) feeding the frontal cortex and left brain the information it needs and (2) enabling the emotional centers and right brain to access this information in moments of intense stress. Parents can do these steps for themselves and for their children. To accomplish Step (1), feeding the brain the information it needs, parents can teach their kids to:
- ask God for help in each challenging situation
- ask God to increase their trust in Him
- Keep a “bitachon (trust) diary” that records the times when God has helped them
In addition, parents can regularly talk about those times where they themselves saw God’s divine guidance in their lives. They can tell stories (at the Shabbos table or at bedtime) of the faith of our forefathers. They can give their older kids their own copies of some of the popular texts on faith and trust. During times of challenge and uncertainty, they can speak about their faith in God’s help. Most importantly, they can refrain from worrying out loud and thereby inadvertently teaching a lack of faith and trust in God.
To accomplish Step 2, giving the emotional centers access to this information so that one can experience feelings of trust in God, parents need to give their kids strategies for calming the heart and opening the mind. Two such strategies are:
- Teaching kids techniques for turning off the fight-or-flight response – the “panic button”
- Teaching kids that they have a choice in where to put their attention and teaching them to choose to put it firmly on Hashem.
It is always easier for us to attend to scary thoughts, images, feelings and bodily sensations. It is our natural tendency to give these things plenty of attention. The yetzer hara – the evil inclination – feeds this tendency knowing that the more frightened we feel, the further away from Hashem we will feel. However, once we have subdued panic, we are free to access the higher centers of our brain, those that can bring us closer to Hashem. With practice, during stressful times we and our children can learn to place our attention onto positive thoughts that soothe our hearts, calm our bodies and place us securely in God’s protective shelter.
Sarah Chana Radcliffe is the author of "The Fear Fix: Solutions for Every Child's Moments of Worry, Panic and Fear."