The link between biology and behaviour

As we all suspected, there's more to toddler tantrums and mummy meltdowns than meets the eye. Dr Melanie Woodfield shares six findings that highlight the link between biology and behaviour.

One of the first things I was taught in my clinical psychology training was something called the five part model. This diagram is fundamental to our understanding of psychological and mental health. It spells out how seemingly random things happening in your body (like headaches, panic attacks, nausea, losing your appetite or sleep troubles) are not random at all. They're very closely connected to what’s happening in your head.

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The five part model spells out how the different aspects of a situation are completely and utterly intertwined. If one thing changes, it affects all the other bits. Say you go for a walk in a forest and you see something rustling in the leaves (your environment). The thoughts that run through your mind directly relate to what you do (run away or run towards), what happens in your body (panic or calm), and how you feel (fear or excitement).

Your body and your behaviour are linked in lots of fascinating ways. Here are a few things you may not have known.

1. hormones can predict eye-contact and friendships
The influence of hormones can be seen even before your baby can be seen! The amount of testosterone your baby is exposed to in the womb is thought to relate to massive things, like social development and attention focus. It has also been linked to eye-contact, spatial ability and language development. Now this isn't something you can control; it won't help to surround yourself with a high testosterone environment. But these studies do help researchers who are trying to understand gender differences in the rates of things like autism, where there are many more boys diagnosed than girls.

2. micro nutrients can improve your mental health
Did you know that some of the symptoms of Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children can be managed with something as simple as fish oil? A recent large study showed that of all the non-pharmacological interventions for ADHD symptoms (like gluten-free and/or casein-free diets), supplementation with fish oil (at a dose of 600mg EPA per day) was one of the only treatments that was consistently effective.

One of New Zealand’s own researchers, Professor Julia Rucklidge from the University of Canterbury, is producing some fascinating information which is confirming that what we eat can affect our mental health. In some cases, micro nutrients (minerals and vitamins) can treat depression, anxiety, stress, autism and ADHD. Micro nutrients can even lead to lower rates of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after natural disasters. These supplements are generally quite cost- effective and easily accessible. A word of warning though – the vitamins and minerals that are used in these studies are given in carefully thought-out combinations and at much higher doses than the standard over-the-counter tablets you can buy from the chemist or supermarket.

There are some people who will benefit from something as simple as improving their diet. There’s a clear link between how well you eat and how well you feel. Professor Rucklidge concluded in her 2014 TEDx talk: “Eating well and, when appropriate, additional nutrients can improve the mental health of many people”.

3. sugar doesn’t cause hyperactivity
Sugar tends to get a bad rap. Rightly so, when it comes to excessive consumption contributing to heart disease, diabetes and obesity. But with hyperactivity, it’s been in the dog box for too long. You've probably heard countless phrases like “all that sugar – he’ll be bouncing off the walls!” But it’s an urban myth that sugar is to blame. There is a very strong correlation between the two, but one doesn’t actually cause the other. Let me briefly explain...

Foods high in sugar tend to be on offer most often at times of celebration, like birthdays and Christmas. These times are exciting and kids are often bouncing off the walls anyway. Your perception plays a big role too. Fascinating studies have tricked some parents into believing their child had been given sugar when they hadn’t.

These parents rated their child’s activity levels as much higher than the group who thought their child had artificial sweetener.

4. Mummy mood swings can be managed without medicine
Some women swear that they turn into a monster in the days before their period. Irritable, scoffing chocolate and shouting at their family while mood-swinging like a monkey through the trees. This change can feel as though it’s come from nowhere, and seems to magically disappear when your period starts.

Most people think of this as premenstrual tension or premenstrual stress. It’s estimated that around 75% of women experience some mood changes before their period. It might interest you to know that there is a small category, known as Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), within one of the major diagnostic manuals used by mental health professionals. This disorder captures the huge period-related mood changes that happen for a small proportion of women (around 5%), that are so significant they impact on work and family life.

It’s a bit of a controversial area, though. Cynics suggest that there’s a movement happening to make mood swings into a problem-that-needs-medication. Some say that a natural, normal hormonal change that is a common experience for many women should be managed without medication in many cases (though some women really do benefit from medication).

A simple visit to your doctor with any concerns about monthly mood swings could bring about a recommendation for cutting down on sugar and processed foods, boosting Vitamin B intake and doing more exercise. A visit to a psychologist with concerns about low mood and possible depression will almost certainly involve a recommendation for regular exercise. It may surprise you to know that increasing regular moderate exercise is one of the most effective first-line interventions for depression – studies have shown this time and time again.

Overall, be kind to yourself. Accept that monthly hormonal mood swings are normal, and dial down the expectations you have of yourself during the few days of the month when it is harder to stay reasonable.

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5. feelings can make you sick
Anxious people will often talk about feeling the anxiety in their body somewhere. It is sometimes a racing heart, shaky hands or a sick feeling in your stomach. Often, you know you’re anxious and can connect the dots between what you’re feeling and how you’re feeling. In some cases, the physical symptoms are so huge that they seem like they couldn’t be explained by anxiety or stress – but believe it or not, some of the most severe conditions can have anxiety or stress at their core. If you have ever had a panic attack, you’ll know this. During the panic attack, you can genuinely feel as though you might die and all of the ‘snap out of its’ in the world aren’t going to help. Thankfully, there are well-researched and proven psychological strategies to help you manage your anxiety.

If your child is anxious, it can be tricky to not overly reassure them, or to get fed up with their constant sore tummies and headaches. Just remember, the physical feelings are as real as a tummy bug or migraine and they are a product of where your child is at psychologically. Tackling the underlying anxiety or stress is going to be the fastest and easiest way to help them feel better.

6. a better night leads to a better day
We all need a good night's sleep. All sorts of important things happen within your body as you sleep, but sleep quality also affects how things are when you’re awake. Tired children struggle to regulate their emotions, catapulting from 0 to 100 in a millisecond, and their reasoning abilities go out the window. You might have noticed that adults are very similar. When you’re tired you might find yourself more weepy, irritable or exasperated, or you might have urges to strike or shout. When you’re well rested, your frontal lobe (responsible for ‘executive functioning’) allows you to inhibit urges like these, and you can do something important called consequential thinking. It isn't rocket science – to have a better day, aim to have a better night. Of course, that’s easier said than done with young children. If you can’t get more sleep, try to structure your days in a way that minimises situations that you find challenging. Also, don’t be tempted to drown your sorrows in multiple cups of coffee– that might make it harder to snooze when you do finally get an opportunity.

Every behaviour has a function. You talk to help others meet your needs, to teach and to connect. You cry to communicate distress and to show you care. While it's fascinating to learn about your biology, and it helps to understand where your children are at, it is not an excuse for oppositional behaviour. You need to dig deeper. Think about what function that behaviour is serving in that moment. Yes, a child who didn’t sleep well is likely to explode when their tower falls down, but throwing the Duplo at the TV is not okay. You can validate where they’re at (“it's hard to stay calm when you’ve worked hard on something and it falls”), but keep the limit (“it’s not okay to hurt people or things”). They need you to help them manage their powerful emotions by modelling calmness, and it’s easier to do this if you take care of yourself. It’s a cliché, but in a plane you need to put your oxygen mask on first in order to best help your child put on theirs.

■  Prof Rucklidge’s thought- provoking 2014 TEDx talk
■  Brainwave Trust,
■  Helping Your Anxious Childby Ron Rapee and colleagues, New Harbinger Publications.
■  A Spoonful of Sugar, M Woodfield, OHbaby! Magazine, issue one


Dr Melanie Woodfield (DClinPsy, BSc(hons) ) is a child and adolescent Clinical Psychologist who lives in Auckland with her young family. She is constantly in awe of the complicated connections between the human brain, body and behaviour (or mind, manner and mood). 


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