My six-year-old granddaughter recently complained that her tummy hurt. Her concerned parents took her to the doctor, who, after running some tests, said she was suffering from anxiety. The doctor remarked that it was an increasingly common malady in children.
Anxiety – in six-year-olds?
For over a dozen years, I taught time management to business executives. As part of the training we encouraged people to spend 10 to 15 minutes planning their day. We called this “planning and solitude” time. This was a regular block of time where they were to think about what was most important, and what they should be doing with their life. As good an idea as it was, most people did not, would not, could not find the time to do it. Why? Short answer: Too much to do. “Instead of fifteen minutes, or even ten,” they think to themselves, “I’ll take a couple of minutes to make the list, and then, POW! I’ll get to work!”
As a society, we value taking action far more than we value spending some quiet time before starting our day. Unlike people in many other countries, Americans in particular, are a “make it happen” people. We work and play hard, taking few breaks in between. Our theme song is “Hurry, hurry, hurry till were done.” Problem is, were never done. In reality, the song should be, “Hurry, hurry, hurry till were dead.” More than once I’ve heard aggressive business leaders say, “There’s so much to do. I will sleep when I die.” That’s how most people in North America prioritize their frantic lives. Whether we’re 6 or 60, we’re paying the price for our lifestyles in the form of acute anxiety, useless worry and unnecessary depression.
No wonder personal anxiety disorder is the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting over 40 million adults, age 18 and older.1 And it’s getting worse for younger generations. According to the New York Times, teenagers now see anxiety and depression as bigger problems than bullying, drug addiction, or any other problem in their lives.2 This illness has now made its way to children.
What is the root-cause of our anxiety?
For all of the incredible benefits of the internet, one of its challenges is the access it gives to unlimited amounts of information. As we explained in the book BIG IDEAS, the human brain is the end result of hundreds of thousands of years of slow but steady, progressive evolution. Neuroscientists have identified five unique brain states and have learned that the brain does very different things in each state. Beta, the fast brain state, is the result of active, conscious thinking, while slower brain states (alpha, theta, and delta) allow the brain to unconsciously organize information, make new connections, and to houseclean.
The brain has evolved to work best when it regularly shifts from faster brain states to slower brain states every few hours. When we violate how the brain naturally works, problems arise. Too much time spent in beta, the faster brain state, without transitioning to alpha, a slower brain state, reduces the brain’s ability to function well, which directly impacts our ability to think creatively, to problem-solve and to effectively manage our emotions. We become irritable, anxious, and tired, and our thinking stalls.
Regardless of age, most of us spend most of our waking time in beta. Screens keep our brains in beta. Technology, apps, and the internet are designed to interrupt our thinking and to excite the brain. We go from one beta experience to the other – all day long, and so do our children.
Before the advent of the internet, life generated many natural down times that were naturally interwoven with active thinking times. Kids played outside. People talked with one another. We took walks and relaxed on the front porch. Now, when we have some downtime, we watch TV, we surf the internet and we get on our cell phones. So do our children, which is one of the reasons why anxiety and all of its problems, are showing up in their lives, even when they’re just six years old.
What can you do? Manage how much time your children spend surfing the net, playing video games, and watching TV. Get them outside where their imaginations can run wild. You’ll be surprised at how it improves their health, helps their sleep, and reduces their, and your, anxiety.