Last summer Matthew, my 7 year-old son, was stung two times. One time a bee got him while a wasp stung him the second time. These moments made a BIG impression on him. He quickly formed a strong opinion that bees and wasps are BAD and SCARY. It was clear his brain’s fight or flight circuit created an opinion and filed these fears for the future.
Because the second sting happened towards the end of summer, we did not see much of a change in his behavior. The bugs simply disappeared for the year so the threat was gone. Now that the warm weather is back and the flowers are starting to bloom, the bees are out in full force. I have noticed Matthew is showing signs of fear whenever he goes outdoors and spots a bee. He watches the bees closely then runs away at the slightest movement. His brain’s alarm bell is ringing loudly.
I recently took my two sons to a trail near my house so they could ride their bikes. It was a beautiful, sunny day. The yellow dandelions adorned the grass all around our path. As you can imagine, Matthew quickly noticed a bee along the path. He instantly swerved his bike to avoid the bee and get as far away as possible. He rode his bike off the trail, into the grass. A few minutes later he again ran his bike off the path trying to avoid an insect he thought could be a bee. He repeated this behavior several more times as we tried to enjoy our ride in the lovely sunshine. He panicked anytime he spotted something floating in the air that could possibly be a bee buzzing around.
The threat of a bee sting took over his desire to ride his bike and enjoy the outdoors. He was functioning in a constant “fight or flight” mode. While I encouraged him to take some deep breaths whenever he saw a possible bee, he couldn’t calm down. We shortened our bike ride and returned home. It was clear we were not going to enjoy the outdoors as long as my son’s fears were intensely activated.
Once safe in our home I began talking with my son about his fear. I told him how Mommy used to be terrified of bees. Using my body and voice, I acted out how I used to panic and run screaming whenever I saw a bee. My son started laughing and we laughed together. At this point I noticed a bee flying near our patio door so I walked over and pointed out to Matthew that the bee no longer scared me. Trying to inspire his curiosity, I asked him if he wanted to learn my “secret” how I learned to calm myself. He was intrigued.
I said, “Usually bees will leave you alone unless they feel threatened. Because bees can react to someone who is afraid and moves in a way that is threatening to them, they are more likely to sting if you react when you are afraid.” I told him when I learned my fear could increase the chances I would be stung, I was motivated to learn how to calm my fear.
The part of our brain that is responsible for the fight or flight response is also the root of phobias (in our training we call this Level 2 of the brain’s emotional control center). It is the area of the brain in charge once our fears increase and become strong. This brain region is non-relational, often irrational, and we can’t be talked out of being afraid. The best way to calm this region is to activate the area of our right frontal lobe called the prefrontal cortex (PFC – what we call Level 4). Level 4 is the Captain of the emotional brain and is the only region of the brain that can calm Level 2, the fear center. One of the best ways to activate Level 4 is to pay attention to how your body feels, so we can scan our body as we breathe deeply to calm ourselves.
I shared with Matthew that I learned to calm myself by taking deep breaths and pay attention to how my belly feels as I breathe deeply. I said, “Does my belly still feel tight and in knots, or do I feel calm? If my belly isn’t calm, then I need to keep taking more breaths and notice when my belly begins to feel calm again.”
Later that day we went outside. Whenever Matthew noticed something flying around, we practiced taking deep breaths and noticed how our bellies were doing. After several days of practice, he ran over to me one afternoon from the playground. With a big grin he shared, “Mommy, there was a bee right next to me and I didn’t even run away!” We both rejoiced that he had worked so hard to calm his fears and he was already seeing some results.
Sometimes the fears children have seem irrational and we may be tempted to discount or disregard our children’s fears. There may be times our own fears are irrational so we try to dismiss them. We can deal with fears that spring up by learning to calm these fears so they don’t paralyze us. This is an important brain skill and there can be times we need to share our fears with someone who is really good at calming down from intense fears so they can help us. Sometimes we need to improve our ability to notice how our body is feeling and practice breathing in order to calm ourselves. Sometimes we focus on the things that bring us joy. As always, it is a good rule of thumb to interact with Immanuel about our fears until we reach peace. We can train our brain to quiet fears so we learn, as a Psalmist once wrote, “I will not die but live!” (118:17)