are intimidating people just anxious

Are intimidating people really just anxious?

Teens enter my office for many different reasons. Most times, parents initiate the contact. Other times, it’s schools. Adults’ concerns are usually—and correctly—about the teen’s safety. So, teens who have problems with self-injury, suicidal thoughts, and aggression are often identified and sent to someone like me. Other behaviors that prompt such action include defiance, oppositional behavior, school refusal, argumentative behavior, and social isolation.

And so treatment begins. And sometimes it’s brief. And more often it’s longer. And when their behavior is regulated, when teens are no longer self-injurying or suicidal, aggressive or using substances…we find the underlying problems. What’s underneath all this unsafe behavior? Would you guess…social anxiety? In my office, I’ve seen a higher-than-expected number of self-injurying teens who actually—before all the unsafe behaviors—had developed Social Anxiety Disorder. And they still have it. Because these kids can be outrageous in appearance and behavior, people often suppose they have similarly bold personalities. Not true.

These teens scowl because they feel as if they are in the glare of the public eye, and that the public is waiting to criticize them. They don’t scowl because they hate the system.

These teens break eye contact not because they don’t like you, but because looking you in the eye paralyzes them with a flood of adrenaline.

These teens end conversations quickly because they are over-analyzing the situation and struggle to think of what to say next. They don’t stop talking because they think you’re boring or stupid.

These teens prefer the company of one close friend—or of no one at all—not because they can’t stand people, but because they can’t stand how they feel around people. It’s miserable.

When I ask these teens how others describe them, one word keeps coming up: “Intimidating.” Their peers tell them that they are intimidating, that they don’t seem to like anyone, and that they are kind of scary. People assume these teens are irritable and that they are verbally or physically dangerous.

But they are none of these, really. They are consumed by a sometimes-panic level of anxiety when they are in social situations. So they’ve found ways to hide anxiety. Some dress in crazy fashions. Others isolate. Some use drugs to feel comfortable around others (this only makes anxiety worse down the road; it’s not a solution). Some teens act obnoxious and outrageous.

Of course, not all self-injurying teens have Social Anxiety Disorder. Many teens dress in crazy clothes because they just like them; they’re not hiding anything. And of course, teens can be obnoxious without any diagnostic label.

But take a look at yourself and your friends…could there be anxiety under all that behavior? If you fix the anxiety, you’ll be more effective. You won’t have to do those things that get you in trouble or draw negative attention. You’ll feel well, again. Like you did when you were a little kid.

Paleolithic (Caveman) Feelings, and You!

Paleolithic (Caveman) Feelings, and You!

Our bodies are made up of traits that are good for our survival and the survival of our species. Every part of us has a function, a purpose. For example, the function of eyes is to see. The function of taste buds is to determine the nutritional value of food and avoid eating poisons.

Our emotions evolved right alongside our bodies. What is the function of emotions? To answer this, think about good ol’ Uncle Caveman. How did fear keep him alive? That’s easy, when he saw a Sabertooth tiger, Uncle Caveman got scared and ran away! Fear gave him the adrenaline, energy, and focus he needed to stay alive.

How did anger keep Uncle Caveman alive? It helped him bargain for his interests better. When another tribe tried to move into his cave, anger created the right motivation for Uncle Caveman to keep his cave (good thing too, what with all those Sabertooth tigers running around). Anger helped Uncle Caveman protect his interests.

What about shame? Shame is a very social emotion, more so than other feelings. When Uncle Caveman did something that disgusted, disappointed, or angered his tribe, he felt shame. Being part of a tribe was critical to Uncle Caveman’s staying alive. The formula is: Alone = Death, Part of Tribe = Survival. Shame helped Uncle Caveman act in pro-social ways so his tribe would not kick him out. (So he had to stop tagging the wooly mammoths).

Sadness for Uncle Caveman was caused by a loss of some sort. I hope one of his children wasn’t eaten by a Sabretooth tiger, but I can’t promise that. Say it happened. Well, sadness did two important things for Uncle Caveman’s survival, and the survival of his tribe. 1) He never forgot that Sabertooth tigers can kill. He told everyone he knew. And he never again asked a Sabertooth tiger to babysit his kids. 2) It made him yearn for his child, and for connection to others. Guess what, this story ends well. Uncle Caveman’s baby actually was hiding that whole time, and since sadness had motivated Uncle Caveman to search for his kid…they lived happily ever after.

Emotions helped Uncle Caveman make decisions that helped him stay alive. The function of emotions is to help us make good decisions, so we don’t get hurt, used, ignored, or run down.

Evolution is a SLOW process. In fact, our bodies are very alike to our cavemen ancestors.  Sure, we know a lot more. And we use Facebook and soap. But our bodies—and our brains—are not so different from good old Uncle Caveman!

Emotions evolved in humans like everything else; what was adaptive to the species remained. Emotions are critical to our decision making! That’s why therapists tell people to “understand your emotions.” If you did that better, you’d made better decisions. I promise.

If we all had perfectly tuned emotions, life would be good. But, we are individuals within a species, and we each have different characteristics. That applies to our eye color, height, IQ, athletic ability, and—of course—emotional experiences.

Many mental disorders are characterized by too much—or not enough—of certain emotions. Depression is too much sadness. Anxiety Disorders are too much fear. Personality Disorders may be too much shame and anger.  When you notice your feelings remain far beyond their function (remember, they help you make good decisions), they can seriously interfere with your life. If your emotions have outlived their usefulness, talk to a trusted adult (p.s., Sabertooth tigers are not good confidantes). It’s time you had some help.

Social Media Effects on Children

Social Media Effects on Children

A CNN article reviews the role of electronic media in children’s lives—the good, the bad, and the narcissistic. The research was conducted by Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D., professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and technology researcher. Below is a summary of the major trends observed by Dr. Rosen. Social Media Effects on Children.

Positive Results

– Social media is a great tool for engaging and captivating children
– Online networking can teach socialization
– Online users show more “virtual empathy”
– Social Media can help children establish a sense of self

Negative Results

– Students using social media during study breaks received lower grades
– Children who use social media tend to be more narcissistic
– Research suggests social media can increase anxiety and depression in children

Dr. Weller suggests that parents stay up-to-date on social media trends. Become familiar with what sites your child uses. (St. Charles school district has recently offered teen-led classes to parents for help with this). Like anything done in mindful moderation, social media can play a role in a well-balanced life.