You're not crazy; it's just your teenage brain

By Beth Cooper Howell

Being a teenager can feel like a never-ending, nerve-crunching roller coaster ride. One minute you’re high on happiness – and the next, you’re emotionally crushed. But this is normal, and here’s why

By Beth Cooper Howell |

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The stress of school, parental expectations and social pressures is difficult enough. Once we add adolescent hormones and development to the mix, things get a little more complex.

The good news is that your brain is doing exactly what it should be doing at this crucial, crazy stage of your bumpy road to adulthood, even though it’s a rough journey at times.

So, let’s take a look at what’s happening in there – and how to handle it like a pro.

Brain biology

“Teen brains often don’t have the brakes that adult brains do,” says Australian clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller.

“Stopping thoughts, impulses and negative feelings is not so easy for teens. Teens worry about whether they will be attractive, smart and successful. They feel judged by many people, including their parents.”

There are a few important biological reasons why you’re feeling under more pressure during this critical time of your life.

Firstly, your brain “ruthlessly destroys” its weakest connections between the age of 10 and puberty; a process called “synaptic pruning”, explains Fuller. It is rooting out what you don’t need and keeping only what’s useful, such as special talents or interests, long-term memory of important experiences, and so on.

While this is occurring, your frontal lobes are hanging around, not doing much. This is the part of the brain that helps us to plan, consider, control impulses, make wise judgments and be kind, caring and considerate people – yet it is the very last section to mature.

“The frontal lobes allow us to be civilised and human. The early adolescent’s frontal lobes have essentially gone missing in action for a time. This means that the teenagers’ brains are all tuned up for emotions, fighting, running away and romance – but not so well tuned up for planning, controlling impulses and forward thinking.”

Basically, you’re like a supersonic, powerful sports car without an experienced driver to steer you around safely.

Hormones in the house

The surge of hormonal activity during adolescence means that you may go from totally chilled to catastrophically stressed out within seconds – and this could happen several times a day!

“Hormones become more powerful and adolescent brains show more activity in the emotional parts of the brain (known as the limbic system) than they do in the planning and impulse-control parts of the brain (the front lobes and pre-frontal cortex),” explains Fuller.

Feeling less motivated by life? This is normal in adolescence, as “synaptic pruning may be associated with a major decline in the amount of excitory stimulation reaching the cortex. Glucose metabolism, a measure of brain activity, declines during the adolescent years.”

This means that you might feel less happy or excited about things that used to give you joy; and you might have more negative feelings, a depressed mood and more mood swings than younger or older people, says Fuller.

Stress also has a big impact on teen brains and bodies – you may react more strongly to it than adults or young children do.

Flight or fight

That limbic system of yours has a tricky little section called the amygdala, which is responsible for emotions – including aggression.

When you’re feeling emotional, you have lower activity in your frontal lobes and more activity in the amygdala than adults do, says Fuller.

This is one reason why you may be more sensitive, angry and emotional about things than adults and children are; and why misunderstandings, arguments and stronger feelings occur.

Edited by Pete Spurrier

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