Mental wellbeing for young people

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What’s going ON with my BRAIN?

Kate Middleton photo Kate Middleton · 20 Jul, 2020

So - you’ve heard it said a thousand times - teenage years are when your brain is changing lots, yada yada blah blah.

But what does this actually MEAN?! HOW is your brain changing, and can that explain why you feel like you are on an emotional rollercoaster? Is it possible you are not losing your mind - that what you are feeling is part of bigger stuff going on reshaping your brain?

Here are 5 GENUINE THINGS going on in your mind right now that probably affect how you are feeling day-to-day...

1 - IDENTITY crisis

So who actually ARE you? I mean, you know your name right, but who ARE you? Not sure? That’s ok, you’re not supposed to be yet!

It's only once you hit adolescence your brain starts to form the concept of self-identity - ie who you are, what you are like, what other people think of you. Up to then you only really see the world from your own point of view, so worrying what other people think of you isn’t really on your radar. But then, when this phase suddenly kicks in you can feel REALLY paranoid about what people think of you. It can feel a bit like living in a permanent spotlight and some people find they suddenly feel super self-conscious and don’t want to EVER be in a situation where people are looking at them or focused on them.


2 - Feeling ROUGH

So - feelings. They’re tricky, right? I mean not the good ones, but the awkward ones - when you’re feeling anxious or sad or jealous or awkward … or when you WANT to feel one thing but ACTUALLY feel another… or when you don’t really feel ANYTHING - but wish you did.

Emotions are your brain’s way of grabbing your attention when something is going on in the world around you. They also change your physiology - setting up your body in case you need to DO SOMETHING about whatever it is. They get your mind WORKING - figuring out what is going on and whether it matters or not, and stop you getting distracted by less important stuff.

And, in adolescence, your brain fine-tunes your emotions. This means for a time they can go a bit crazy - and get triggered more easily, flare-up more quickly, or generally feel more out of control than normal. It’s like being on ROUGH SEAS and suddenly the waves get up and you don’t know why and all you can do is ride them.

The GOOD NEWS is this will get better. Your emotions WILL settle down. But if they’re freaking you out - find someone you can talk to about them - it will help. Bottling them up might feel like a good option but in the long run, it doesn’t deal with them - remember their job is to get your attention - so if you really want rid of them find a way to give them headspace and ponder where they came from - then and only then they’ll drop back down.


3 - Losing your SHIPS

RELATIONSHIPS, obviously! This might be the latest romance - or it could be just about mates and what they think about you or mean to you. Relationships shift a LOT in the teenage years - and it is all to do with your brain.

Your mind is OBSESSED with relationships - because figuring out how to do these - and most importantly the really meaningful ones that will become your main support in adult life - is one of the main challenges of adolescence. Because part of your job in this stage is becoming less dependent on your parents and getting used to doing stuff on your own. Except none of were designed to do life on our own - so doing friendships and relationships well really matters.

So - expect to find anything to do with relationships much more triggering. And expect them to shift around a LOT more in this time. Things will settle down but for now, it might feel a bit tricky. Mate not replied to a text? Yeah, that’s gonna make you anxious, no matter how much you know their phone probably ran out of battery. Had a row with someone? That’s gonna bug you. Someone said something snarky to you? That will hurt - annoyingly - more than the grown-ups in your life perhaps think it oughta. And now you know why!


4 - Oh great, need to MOTIVATE

Trying to get yourself moving? Trying to concentrate? Trying to make a plan, or get some work done, or even just make plans for the weekend with mates?

The bit of your brain that changes the most in adolescences is the frontal lobes and one thing they do is help you manage something called ‘executive function’ - that’s basically getting the balance right between all the different things you COULD be thinking about and focusing on. And this means during adolescence you’ll get better at all these things but for now they can be tricky. So deciding what you do or don’t want to do - making plans, focusing your mind on things can be hard. Getting into what psychologists call ‘flow’ - basically when you’re in the zone and properly concentrating on what you are doing - that can be hard. And flow is important for feeling like we’re being productive so if your brain is feeling flirty then it’s super frustrating and can trigger some tricky emotions. Plus of course, other people can get a bit stressy if you’re lack of motivation results in you … well, doing nothing.

So - if you know this is you, be honest with people around you and ask for help. Use all the tricks you can to organise yourself - make lists, plan your calendar, set yourself challenges, use apps, set alarms - anything that helps you focus. If you have a flat day remember the flow trick - getting into the zone in something will really help boost your mood so whether its a good walk or run, or something you love like reading or a craft or baking bread - take 30-60 mins out to do something like this and see if it helps you get into a better place to progress.


5 - RISKY living

So here’s the thing about being a teenager. One minute you can’t think of a THING you want to do. The next you want to do something NOW. RIGHT NOW!!! And often something someone else doesn’t want you to do!! That’s the other side of your executive function playing up - impulsivity. And it depends a bit on your character as some people are more ‘thinking things through first’ kinda people than others - but almost everyone is a bit more impulsive as a teenager.

You see one of the last ‘adult processes’ in your mind to develop is the ability to link something you do NOW with an outcome that is much LATER. So it might be studying NOW and the grade you get in next week’s exam … or getting a decent night’s sleep ahead of an important day tomorrow, or eating that entire chocolate bar and then feeling quite sick … Whether it is things that will impact you quite soon or the long term decisions of life, your brain isn’t naturally oriented to think about them. And that can mean you do some things that you later … well, you probably wish you hadn’t done. Or it means you do things that other people think are TOTALLY CRAZY and continually freak out about - and you can’t see what is bugging them?! They may be thinking about a longer-term impact whilst your mind is much more in the present.

The good news about this time is you are better at enjoying a moment - because you don’t think so long term. So it's not all bad. But bear this one in mind - if someone else is telling you something is a bad idea because of what might happen - well it could be worth giving that some headspace.



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