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Family Anxiety Challenge – Changing the Neural Pathways in Your Brain

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I am a therapist who has to make an effort each day to manage my anxiety and negative emotions. Therapists are not usually open about their mental health in our culture; we are looked to as the expert and someone who has it ‘all together’. But I became a therapist for two reasons: to help understand my brain, and to use what I learned to help others. I find that being transparent about my mental health inspires others to share their truths.

Human beings are a work in progress. We know this is true because of the research on the neuroplasticity of our brains. This is very good news, especially for people exposed to ACEs (adverse childhood experiences). In a nutshell, neuroplasticity means that we have the ability to change our thoughts, behaviours, and emotions – but it also means we need to work at building new neural pathways in our brains moment by moment.

To help illustrate this concept, have you ever dug a channel in the sand at the beach for the water to flow into? Or watched a stream of rainwater flow downhill? The water is your automatic stream of thoughts. Your default position. The way your brain functions without much effort. The channel is your neural pathway. The water flows into the channel without resistance, effortlessly.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the water and the channel. The more water that flows in that channel the deeper and wider the channel becomes. It is the same in your brain. The more time you spend flowing your thoughts into an already existing neural pathway, the deeper and more ingrained the pathway becomes. The deeper and more ingrained the pathway, the harder it is to flow your thoughts into a new channel.

To change your neural pathway, you must step out of the default flow of your thoughts and build a new channel. This is not easy because our brains are wired to seek out threats and respond to them quickly. Our keen ability to seek out threats in the environment is why our brains are feeling anxious during this life-threatening pandemic. Anxiety is functional, serves a purpose for protecting us, and is often involuntary. Do not beat yourself up if you find yourself filled with negative thinking. This is entirely normal.  

What we can do to shift our brains is what many refer to as ‘thought work’, and takes significant effort and your consistent attention to result in change. I admit it can be difficult for most people. Our ways of thinking, emoting and behaving are built from what we learned in our early childhood.

But we now know neuroplasticity is maintained across a lifetime, and with knowledge and effort, we can alter our internal paradigms. If we want to change the patterns that are already in place, we have to do more than just deny the thoughts that are already there and replace them with ‘positive thinking’. That doesn’t work. What we need to do is find replacement thoughts that are incrementally more believable than our negative thoughts. Thought work can be useful for children as well as adults. 

Below is an activity you can complete alone or with your children to build new patterns of thinking, which will change your emotions and behaviour. 

Change the channel activity

  • If working with children, explain to them the above analogy about how thoughts flow like water. Beliefs follow the path of least resistance. You can demonstrate how this works outside with a water hose in the driveway. Help them notice how the water flows.
  • Rate your anxiety level on a scale from 0–10, where zero means you are so relaxed you could fall asleep, and 10 is a full-blown panic attack. Draw this as a colourful graph. 
  • Write down your five worst-case scenarios for the day. Notice how your body feels, what sensations it brings up. Acknowledge that while you probably feel uncomfortable, your body is not actually in any physical danger. Sit with those feelings for as long as you need. Feel the sadness, fear or frustration. Take note of the areas in your body where you feel it the most. Rate your anxiety level again and draw a graph or picture of your feelings.
  • Write down five alternative scenarios that you believe to be possible. This is key. You must come up with thoughts you have a least a pinky toe of belief in. If you don’t, the exercise will not work. Notice how the feelings in your body shift. What are you feeling now? Where are you feeling it in your body? Rate your level of anxiety and draw a graph or picture. 
  • Make a side-by-side graph on a scale of 1–10 for how much you believe the worst-case scenarios compared to the alternative scenarios.  This graph will help you, and the child put your anxiety into perspective.
  • Remind yourself: You don’t know the future, so all scenarios are possible. Choose which scenarios to focus your attention on.

This short activity can be used as a homeschool lesson or as a part of your morning routine during the pandemic. Complete this exercise each day to see how your thoughts and emotions shift over the course of a week.  Doing so will allow you to slow down your thinking and notice the existing patterns in your brain so that you can start to construct the neural pathways you choose to build.  

I warned you this was work. But, it will give you the power to harness neuroplasticity, and nothing in life is more critical than the health of your brain. Without it, what do we have? I wish you all mental resiliency and the courage to try new things as we navigate these choppy waters.


Image credit: Freepik

Beth Tyson is a psychotherapist, trauma-responsive coach, author, speaker and advocate for families coping with trauma and loss. Her children’s book, A Grandfamily for Sullivan, is a tender-hearted story about an orphaned koala.


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