A User's Guide to Your Raging Brain
That emotional roller coaster you’re on? It’s all because your brain is changing like crazy right now. Read on to better understand your seemingly random moods . . . and how to survive them.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt like your mood swings are out of your control: One day you’re obsessed with your friends, and the next day you’re freaking out because they went shopping without you. Or maybe you deep-down adore your parents, yet every time they say something even slightly annoying (“Did you take out the trash yet?”), you L-o-s-e I-t (“LEAVE ME ALONE!!!!!”).
We get it. Right about now, your emotions can feel like total chaos. But the good news is, at your age, those ups and downs are usually pretty normal. In fact, they stem from something awesome: Your brain is growing, changing, and making you better than ever. “The first dozen years of your life, your brain is a sponge soaking in all the things that unfold around you,” says Dr. Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and the author of Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.
Around age 12, though, something very different occurs: The body starts restructuring the brain so that it works like an adult’s—getting you ready to think and feel like a smart, independent grown-up.
Yep, you’re basically beefing up your brain for life on your own. The only challenge? Understanding the transformation taking place beneath your skull so you can harness all that new brainpower for good . . . not evil.
YOU FEEL: Super-tempted to take a risk, like sneaking out, speeding, or shoplifting.
The Brain-Change Origin: Have you ever heard of the “reward circuit”? It’s a system in the brain that shoots out a feel-good chemical called dopamine whenever you do something your brain likes: eat a candy bar, listen to an amazing song. At this age, though, your reward circuit changes, and you need to take a bigger, bolder leap to get the same feel-good rush. (Why? It’s Mother Nature’s way of making you brave and curious, so you’ll strike out on your own instead of hanging around with your parents.)
Your Take-Control Tactic: Do a gut check! Even if your brain can’t see clearly, your gut always knows what’s up. No, really: “You have neurons in your intestine that are part of your nervous system,” Siegel says. It sounds weird, but when you’re weighing something risky, the trick is to train yourself to pause, take a deep breath, and notice if your chest and stomach are tight or unsettled. If so, listen up. You’re getting a clear NO.
YOU FEEL: Like your whole life hinges on getting invited to the party this weekend.
The Brain-Change Origin: Adolescents are built to be collaborative; evolution wants you and your peers to start working together with other adults, since that’s what has always helped humans survive. Mother Nature pushes for this teamwork mind-set by making your social life feel more critical than ever right now. The only downside is that fitting in is so key, rejection can hurt like crazy.
Your Take-Control Tactic: Put your “reality” to the test. The next time you feel left out (say, you see two friends at Starbucks on Snapchat), hit pause and force yourself to come up with a few different explanations. “You might first think, ‘They think I’m annoying so they don’t want me there,’ ” says psychologist Lucie Hemmen. “But another explanation is that they know your cousin’s in town so they figure you’re not free, or they know you don’t like coffee.” This skill—called reality testing—helps you remember that, nine times out of ten, a social slight isn’t personal.
YOU FEEL: Like punching the wall after your coach makes a snide comment.
The Brain-Change Origin: In boys, puberty means an increase in testosterone, a sex hormone that brings on physical changes like a lower voice and facial hair. It also affects the part of the brain that manages aggression, meaning you might go from totally fine to so-angry-you-could-hit-something, fast.
Your Take-Control Tactic: Find a healthy release. Once you are all riled up, there’s no going back—you can’t just take a few deep breaths and feel fine. Instead, “you need to throw the train on another track,” Hemmen says. Pick a (safe) activity that allows you to get out all of that aggression: working out hard, playing the drums with all your might. Doing so will give you the same ahhhh feeling your body craves from punching the wall (or worse).
YOU FEEL: Extra sad or irritable for a reason you can’t really explain.
The Brain-Change Origin: It’s normal for both boys and girls to feel sad at your age, but for girls, hormones can play a major role. Levels of estrogen, the key female sex hormone, rise, triggering the physical changes of puberty—and sometimes a crummy mood too.
Your Take-Control Tactic: When an ugly cry is coming on or you’re annoyed with a friend, label the emotion. Simply acknowledging that you feel sad or mad will remind you that those are, after all, just emotions—not the end-all, be-all. And don’t forget to name positive feelings too! That way, you’ll figure out what activities—taking a bath, watching funny videos—can help pull you out of a funk.
GET THIS: Adolescent minds are built to rebel and invent—neuroscientists say they have the unique ability to see what could be and should be. So now’s the time to speak up and create solutions . . . like these trailblazers!
THE FREEDOM FIGHTER: Founding Father Marquis de Lafayette was 19 when he traveled to the United States to join the American Revolution.
THE INVENTOR: Alexander Graham Bell was 18 when he started to dream up a new way to transmit speech (eventually known as . . .the telephone!).
THE ACTIVIST: Malala Yousafzai was 17 when she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work fighting for equal access to education for all children.