By Michel Hendricks

In my previous article on the movie, Inside Out 2, we looked at the brain reconstruction that happens when we transition from child to adult around age 14. One of the consequences we see in Riley is the introduction and almost overwhelming dominance anxiety in Riley’s life. Anxiety is a new emotion added to her control room that was not present in the original movie. This emotion often appears in the lives of young people as they start to change into adults.  

Children have little room for anxiety due to their pre-adult brain’s inability to support complex thoughts needed for anxiety. The brain remodel that initiates puberty and is depicted as a wrecking ball in the control room, changes the brain in a way that makes anxiety more pernicious. Those who have parented children through this transition will say, “Amen!”  From one day to the next, our lighthearted children turn sullen and self-conscious. In Riley, we see her suddenly bombarded by a host of “What if…?” and “What are they thinking of me?” questions.  

These questions come from changes in the adult brain. As children (around ages 4-14), we are mainly learning to figure out how to take care of ourselves. Our parents help us with things like making our beds and brushing our teeth, all the while seeing us through the eyes of heaven (in the best of cases). As we progress through childhood, the tasks get more difficult but have the same focus – how do I take care of myself, even when it involves doing hard things? We mainly think about “me”. 

God designed the adult brain to look to “my people” instead of just figuring out who I am and taking care of myself. A person functioning in adult maturity thinks more about “we.” Instead of taking care of just myself, my adult brain is primed to learn how to take care of myself and others at the same time, without ignoring either.  And “my people” become a central motivator and identity developer, and I will even sacrifice myself to protect my people. Like we saw in the previous article, adults are optimized to learn “how to care for others without becoming codependent, indifferent or abusive.” Mutually satisfying relationships are the great upside of adult maturity. 

Anxiety is a potential downside. The remodel allows us to learn the joy of mutually satisfying relationships. We also use the ability to read what is going on in the minds of other people and couple it with a switch to being motivated by our group instead of just myself. This shift is important for healthy relating and community life, but it opens the door for anxiety storms, like we saw in Riley’s life during hockey camp. “Do I stay with my old friends, or do I try to fit in with the new group of cool people? Will these new girls like me? How do I need to act to be accepted? Will I make the hockey team? Does my coach like me?” 

Anxiety and fear are not the same thing. Fear is a fast response to a perceived threat: A rattlesnake on the hiking trail. The car ahead of me slams on the brakes. The ladder I’m standing on starts to slip. Fear is faster than our conscious thoughts and is not under our control. We can calm it down later, and we can learn to regulate fear. But we cannot avoid it. 

Anxiety is slower and builds in response to our thinking, like Riley’s anxious worries. Calming anxiety comes from better thinking combined with knowing who we are in the situation. When Paul writes, “Be anxious for nothing” (Philippians 4:6-7), his solution is not to grit our teeth and try to push anxious thoughts out of our minds. Instead, he says to interact with God. “Jesus, what is your perspective on my anxious thoughts?” is a prayer every Christian should memorize and pray often. When we listen to Jesus’ bigger perspective on our problems, it brings peace. Jesus’ peace does not always take our pain and problems away, but we know who he created us to be in the situation. Sometimes we will need the help of a more mature Christian to sense Jesus’ bigger perspective.  

It is key that we do not lean on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5), because this is the road to a high-anxiety life. When we try to figure out problems ourselves, not only does this naturally amplify anxiety, it also opens the door for the enemy to get involved. The devil loves to see Christians trying to figure life out instead of interacting with Jesus and listening to him. He loves church leaders who try to solve the church’s problems instead of quieting themselves and listening to Jesus. His demons have all sorts of tricky strategies to keep us stuck in our own thoughts. Let’s not open that door. 

The other element of a low-anxiety life is knowing who we are: group identity. The adult brain primarily looks to “my people” to find out who I am and how I act in a way that reflects my people. Our churches need to build a solid, anxiety lowering group identity that informs us how God’s family works in specific situations: when we lose a job, when we don’t make the team, when our boyfriend/girlfriend breaks up with us.  

What if I am unsure of who my people are? What if “my people” do not see me through the eyes of love? What if I don’t know who I am in a situation or how we act? What if my community is online, with pressure to perform and look good? In these cases, anxiety can easily take over the control room. We desperately need a family (physical and/or spiritual) that sees us through the eyes of heaven and reminds us who we are when we forget. Churches were meant to grow a strong identity in their people, but often this aspect of discipleship goes missing. 

The lack of a solid identity was a problem for me during my transition to adulthood. Early in the spring semester of ninth grade, our gym class ran a mile race. I beat the entire class and had the best time of all the gym classes in my grade. Later that semester, there was a citywide track meet, and I was asked to represent my school in the mile race. Between the first race and the second race, the wrecking ball crashed into my control room and the remodel started. By the time of the citywide track meet, I was a mess just like Riley. What if I fail? What will people think of me? What if I disappoint people? What if I look foolish? 

My parents provided little help with my anxious thoughts. The group identity of our family left little to draw from to help an anxious young teen know who he was when facing pressure to perform. There were no grandparents around to help me. I wasn’t part of a multigenerational community, so no elders spotted my anxiety and stepped in to give me a hand. As a result, I didn’t sleep for an entire week before the race, and predictably, I performed poorly. I remember wondering, “What is happening to me? How do I stop these thoughts?” 

Oh, how I would have loved to hear Jesus’ calming wisdom and heavenly perspective on the pressure I felt! I did not know Jesus at the time, but I have since revisited that experience with him. His words to me about this painful experience have given me a peace that lasts.  

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