Why Teenagers Act the way they Do:

December 31, 2015
Leonard H. Golubchick

Why Teenagers Act the way they Do:

New York, NY – Adolescence is practically synonymous in our culture with risk taking, emotional drama, and all forms of outlandish behavior. Until very recently, the widely accepted explanation for adolescent angst has been psychological. Developmentally, teenagers faced a number of social and emotional challenges, like starting to separate from their parents, getting accepted into a peer group and figuring out who they really are. These are anxiety-provoking transitions. 

A darker side to adolescence is surge in anxiety and fearfulness. This due to a quirk in brain development.Adolescents experience more anxiety and fear and have a harder time learning how not to be afraid than either children or adults.

Different regions and circuits of the brain mature at very different rates. It turns out that the brain circuit for professing fear- the amygdala- is precocious and develops way ahead of the prefrontal cortex, the seatof reasoning and executive control. This means that adolescents have a brain that is wired with an enhanced capacity for fear and anxiety but it is underdeveloped when it comes to calm reasoning.

The question is that if adolescents have such enhanced capacity for anxiety they are such risk takers and novelty seekers. It appears that such traits are at odds. The answer in part is that the brain’s reward center, just like its fear circuit matures, than the prefrontal cortex. The reward center drives much of the teenagers’ risky behavior. This behavioral paradox also explains why adolescents are particularly prone to injury and trauma. The top three killers of teenagers are accidents. homicide, and suicide.

The brain development lag has huge implications for how we think about anxiety and how we treat it. It suggests that anxious adolescents may not be very responsive to psychotherapy that attempts to teach them to be unafraid, like cognitive behavior therapy.

What we have learned we should think twice about the ever rising use of stimulants in young people since these drugs may worsen anxiety and assist teenagers to not perform developmentally appropriate tasks.  Most teenagers do not develop anxiety disorders, but acquire the skills to modulate their fear as their prefrontal cortex matures in young adulthood, at around 25. To note, up to 20% of adolescents in the United States experience a diagnosable anxiety disorder. They occur as panic attacks or generalized anxiety which result from a mix of genetic and environmental influences.

The amygdala is a region deep within the brain buried beneath the cortex that is critical to responding and evaluating fear. It sends and receives connections to our prefrontal cortex alerting us to danger even before we have time to think about it. Think of that split second adrenaline surge when you see what appears to be a snake on a hike in the woods. That instantaneous fear is your amygdala in action. Then you circle back, take another look and this time your prefrontal cortex tells you that is was a stick.

Thus, the fear circuit is a two way street. While we have limited control over the fear alarm from our amygdala, our prefrontal cortex effectively exert top-down control, giving us the ability to more accurately assess the risk in our environment. Due to the fact that the prefrontal cortex is one of the last brain regions to mature adolescents have far less ability to modulate emotions. 

Fear learning lies at the heart of anxiety and anxiety disorders. This primitive form of learning allows us to form associations between events and specific cures and environment that may predict danger. We might have learned a loud noise or a flight of birds might signal a predator or danger- and taken the cue and run to safety. Without the ability to identify such danger signals, we would have been lunch a long time ago.

Once previously threatening cues or situations become safe, we have to be able to re-evaluate them and suppress our learned fear associations. People with anxiety disorders have trouble doing this and experience persistent fear in the absence of threat- better known as anxiety.

December 30, 2015

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