The Worry Brain

A worried mind is a very loud mind, it practically screams out for help the minute the lights go down or an unexpected trigger hits.

Go ahead and panic, it whisper-yells, over and over again.  The body responds in an instant with anxiety symptoms such as shortness of breath, rapid, heartbeat, muscle tension, stomach pain, and dizziness.

And that’s just for adults…imagine how children feel when panic sets in?

We are all equipped with the fight or flight response.  We need that little voice inside our brains that reminds that the pot is too hot, that we shouldn’t run in the street, or that danger is imminent.  Healthy stress is a very good thing.

But excessive stress and excessive worry can lead to health problems.  Poor sleep (including nightmares), poor eating habits, frequent colds and viruses, headaches (including migraines), stomach pain and other gastrointestinal issues, and high blood pressure top the list of negative side effects of stress and anxiety.

Children have worries, and some worry more than others.  It’s a perfectly normal part of development.  Many children even have specific fears that cause the brain to go into panic overload.  Transitions, crowds, separation from parents, getting lost, being left behind or home alone, fear of failure, fear of upsetting a teacher or parent, fear of rejection, natural disasters, scary TV shows or the news, dogs and other animals, spiders, the dark, monsters, ghosts, and nightmares are all common childhood fears and worries.

As their worlds expand, children become aware of new real-life stressors and experiences.  It makes sense that their fears become larger as they experience things like fire and earthquake drills or talk about personal safety on a regular basis.

Self-talk helps children talk their way through stressful and fear inducing situations.  When children talk back to their worries, they feel some control over the situation and can remain calm enough to find a solution to the problem.

I like to teach kids about the difference between the “Happy Brain” and the “Worry Brain”.

The happy brain focuses on things that make a child feel calm and happy on an everyday basis.

Example of a Happy Brain

The CEO of the brain remains calm and in control when the “Happy Brain” takes the lead.  Worry is there in case the fight or flight response is needed, but fears are at a minimum when the “Happy Brain” is in charge.

The “Worry Brain” is a different story.  The “Worry Brain” hits the panic button when a trigger arises, causing those terrible anxiety symptoms mentioned above.  The “Worry Brain” makes decisions based on fear, and causes children to feel scared, sad, and alone.

Example of a Worry Brain

When the “Worry Brain” takes over, the CEO of the brain shrinks and the worry center expands.

Kids can talk back to their worry brains, though, and that can help them cope with stressful situations.  They can say things like:

No, worry brain!  I won’t get lost!

I can ask for help!

Monsters aren’t real!

When your child can identify her fear triggers, she can learn to talk back to her Worry Brain so that she can make a choice to help her through the acute stress reaction.

Drawing and play are two great ways to help your child identify her worries.  Pleasers by nature and not wanting to worry their parents, most young children will respond, “I don’t know” when asked directly about specific fears.

Some kids go from calm to panic in a matter of seconds.  They forget to talk back because they are too busy trying to catch their breath…

You might want to practice blowing up some balloons first to help them understand the art of deep breathing:


Do your worried child a favor today and draw out a happy brain and a worried brain…understanding how our brains and bodies work can make a very big difference in the mind of a worried child.

And then practice those self-talk statements…because we all know that practice makes proficient.

Here’s hoping you have a worry-free day!

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)