I am always excited to attend my son’s football games. His competitive team has been undefeated, which can be attributed to a balanced team that is skilled in both offense and defense. The defensive team has been coached to anticipate threats and prevent the opponent from breaking down their barriers and moving forward. No matter how great a team is defensively, they will never be victorious without an equally skilled offense. In order to be successful they need to be assertive, determined and take action.
Many Cascade Academy students have only been playing on defense for years! They react, predict, and fear what’s coming at them, oftentimes unnecessarily. They doubt their ability to handle basic life scenarios and most often have lost their desire to even try. In a recent peer reviewed study, Uncertainty and Anticipation in Anxiety, An integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective Grupe and Nitschke state, “The human brain is an ‘anticipation machine’, and ‘making future’ is the most important thing it does.” There is nothing wrong with anticipating the future; however, it is unbalanced if it’s all we do. Past experiences help us to predict future events but when it becomes obsessive or aberrant, it has now become an anxiety disorder.
For adolescents with anxiety, avoiding situations that others would consider safe and normal is very common. For example, fears such as being called on by a teacher and not knowing the answer, not having a friend to sit by or not getting an A on an exam or assignment can be distressing for many teenagers without resulting in school avoidance. Our Cascade Academy students have become so severe that they may avoid school altogether rather than face these fears. These are common examples of how our girls are always on the defense. The avoidance behavior is reenforced as they believe the negative outcome did not occur because they avoided it. The vicious cycle repeats over and over entrenching their neuropathways. Sadly, those with anxiety disorders can become so severe that, “almost any stimulus is perceived as danger.”
Grupe and Nitschke found, “abnormalities in the neural circuitry” of anxious people; specifically, repetitive anxious thoughts and behaviors strengthen anxious neuropathways. In the same study they identify many ways anxious people respond to future threats including: hypervigilance, inability to recognize when they are safe, behavioral and mental avoidance, heightened reactivity to uncertainty, and premature action to perceived threats. The more these anxious responses are used the stronger the neuropathway becomes. An anxious response becomes automatic if not interrupted. The good news is, due to the neuroplasticity of the brain, treatment can be very effective if sustained for a meaningful length of time.
While everyone may experience fear, nervousness and occasionally avoid situations that distress them, it is imperative to seek help if it becomes excessive. Research shows there is a high correlation between intolerance of uncertainty and severe anxiety in young people. At Cascade Academy we give our girls a “playbook” by teaching them skills to process anxiety in a healthy way. We encourage them to tackle the situations they fear most; giving them confidence in their ability to face uncertainty. Just as in football, plays are practiced and practiced until they become automatic – it is no different at Cascade Academy. We are creating new neuropathways by repetition. Our girls are inspired and become confident, they are ready to play offense, take the ball and take control of their lives!