Have you ever noticed, that when you pop to Tesco you can quickly forget about it, or if someone asks you what you had for dinner last night, you can rack your brains feeling like it was forever ago? But, when something challenging happens, it can take, days, weeks, months or even years to forget about it?
In fact, sometimes, it can feel like you cannot escape it.
So, why does our brain become so selective about what it will allow us to forget?
When I work in my therapy office, I use this analogy to explain it to the children and young people I work with. Frequently, parents will have an ‘a ha’ moment and sometimes, come and work on some of their own historic worries.
A story about stress and filing cabinets
Your brain function is like a filing cabinet… From the moment you are conceived the filing cabinet starts to collect suspension files with lovely labelled tabs telling us what goes in them… The great thing? Once the file and tab is created, your brain just accesses it whenever it is needed!
No conscious thought required.
In the top drawer you can find all the experiences that you have encountered… as you experience different events in life, a suspension tab is created and your filing cabinet grows…
In the middle drawer are the suspension files for emotional, behavioural and motivational requirements. As you experience an issue and find a resolution for it, the file is created.
In the bottom drawer you can find all the suspension files for your body’s physiological systems – breathing, heart rate, digestion….all shared through the body by the central nervous system.
On the top is the ‘in tray’ – this tray is where all experiences in your life (positive and negative) start their journey. On entry to the ‘in tray’ the filing cabinet identifies which drawer it requires… then it identifies where to file the experience…closes the drawer and your day continues…
BUT – what happens when there is no suspension file? There is no tab?
This often happens in difficult times and situations where we have little or no prior experience e.g. trauma, bereavement, bullying, conflict, abuse, domestic violence, child illness, new siblings, moving house… And this is where stress is created… A filing cabinet with too much overdue filing = the symptoms of stress.
Sometimes, our brain just does not have anything in the cabinet that it can use to help you file away the problem.
So, therefore, we end up with events that our brain plays over and over and over again, until we find a way to manage them.
Stress, filing cabinets and children
Stress affects children just like it does adults –BUT – they have less files in their filing cabinet so they struggle to find ways to resolve things. Something, that we as an adult file quickly, may play on a child for months.
Stress releases cortisol in the body, and when this floods the child’s body they will react emotionally or physically, to it but will not understand what is happening.
So we cannot just expect children to ‘know’ how to manage their stress.
When do we need help?
My advice to parents, is that if a child has struggled with processing an event or emotions for a period of 8 weeks or more, then it is beneficial to consider an intervention. For instance, therapy sessions, online support, or resources such as hypnotherapy audios (find a collection here), therapeutic stories (find a selection here) or an app such as headspace.
How can we help at home/school?
In the interim, we can foster safe environments, by considering:
- Develop an environment which allows children to feel loved, trusted, understood, valued and safe
- Offer opportunities for children to relax and enjoy themselves, when we are relaxed we can process more feelings
- Show interest in the children we work with
- Model being hopeful and optimistic, as well as strategies to manage feelings e.g. ‘I’m feeling really stressed today so I am going for a walk to relax’
- Offering opportunities to learn and succeed at their own rate, reduce pressure and allow children to work at their own pace
- Give a sense of belonging in their family, school and community
- Allow children to make choices about their day to give a sense of having some control over their own life
- Offer children the opportunity to solve problems for themselves,
- Keep promises
- Support children to find resolution when something is wrong (resilience)
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For more articles about mental health visit – HERE
To learn more about child and adolescent mental health visit – HERE
For resources to support child and adolescent mental health visit – HERE