The Adolescent Anxiety Epidemic: What You Can Do

41%

-That’s the number of college freshmen reporting that last year they had experienced “overwhelming anxiety!” High school administrators across the US, report “a glut of anxious, overwhelmed students.” In an interview for the New York Times, Laurie Farkas, said . “But there’s just been a steady increase of severely anxious students.” Here is what you need to know so you can help your students

Anxiety is the most common mental-health disorder in the United States, affecting nearly one-third of both adolescents and adults (1 in 4 in Canada), according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But unlike depression, with which it routinely diagnoses, anxiety is often seen as a “less serious problem.”(Denizet-Lewis, 2017)

Urban and Sub Urban Kids Suffer

It seems obvious that the city could produce anxiety. Fast paced and crime-filled there are real dangers in the streets. Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who has studied distress and resilience in both well-off and disadvantaged teenagers, has found that privileged youths are among the most emotionally distressed young people in America. “These kids are incredibly anxious and perfectionistic,” she says.

The Social Media Fishbowl Magnifies the Effect

Anxious kids certainly existed before Instagram, but many of the parents worry that their kids’ digital habits — round-the-clock responding to texts, posting to social media, obsessively following the filtered exploits of peers — were partly to blame for their children’s struggles.. “I don’t think we realize how much it’s affecting our moods and personalities,” he said. “Social media is a tool, but it’s become this thing that we can’t live without but that’s making us crazy.”

You have heard of FOMO –fear of missing out –Now put it in the context of anxiety. Are people saying things about me that I don’t know? Do I need to respond to something that I’m not even aware of?

Instead of accepting anxiety and trying comfort students in their distress I think there is more that youth workers and parents could be doing. Here’s a start:

  1. Redirect Attention Away from the Social Media

Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who researches adolescent mental health found thatThe more she looked for explanations about the spike in adolescent anxiety, the more she kept returning to trend lines — depression in teenagers and smartphone adoption. (There is significantly more data about depression than anxiety.)

Since 2011, the trend lines increased at essentially the same rate. In her recent book “iGen,” and in an article in The Atlantic, Twenge highlights a number of studies exploring the connection between social media and unhappiness. “The use of social media and smartphones look culpable for the increase in teen mental-health issues,” she explained. “It’s enough for an arrest — and as we get more data, it might be enough for a conviction.”

The more that students stew over what others think of them, the worse their mental health. Ruminating over their weaknesses or flaws is particularly dangerous. If they commiserate with fellow students about their problems they think that it helps but it doesn’t. The more they obsess over their hurts on social media, their personal flaws, and their worries about upcoming events the more anxiety and depression dominate their conscious thoughts.

Helping others, journaling on things that make them grateful, and giving thanks to God are helpful for managing daily stressors.

  1. Understand but Don’t Play Along

Lynn Lyons, a psychotherapist calls anxiety “the cult leader” — for its ability to convince people of falsehoods about themselves In a seemingly well-meaning effort to help kids avoid what makes them anxious, administrators actually make anxiety worse. “Anxiety is all about the avoidance of uncertainty and discomfort,” Lyons explained. “When we play along, we don’t help kids learn to cope or problem-solve in the face of unexpected events.”

I could make my daughter even more disgusted and afraid of spiders than she already is by freaking out when I see one and constantly talking about how they could be living under her bed and possibly in her pillow. If we prayed that spiders would not get her in the night and especially huge drooling ones would not bite her in her sleep. Her fear would increase to the point that she could not sleep. Better to just pray the psalmists words –“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.”(PS 23) Bravery isn’t even required.

  1. Build Resilience

Among many teachers and administrators I spoke to, one word — “resiliency” — kept coming up. More and more students struggle to recover from minor setbacks and aren’t “equipped to problem-solve or advocate for themselves effectively,” a school counselor in suburban Oregon told me. In the last few years, the counselor said, she has watched in astonishment as more students struggle with anxiety — and as more of those “stop coming to school, because they just can’t.”

Some good work is being done with some teens using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Students are learning to face fears and work their way through them. Engaging in the real world and overcoming potentially stressful situations can help them to overcome some of their imagined fears.

  1. Manage Your Own Anxiety

Like yawns, anxiety is contagious. Teens can pick up on parental fears. They unconsciously read the body language and sense the anxiety in their voices.

Researchers have found that anxious teenagers tend to come from anxious parents. “Research points to hereditary genes that predispose children to an anxiety disorder, and studies have found that an overbearing or anxious parenting style can induce anxiety and risk-aversion in kids.” Teen therapists, spend a lot of time urging family members to work on their own anxiety issues.

  1. Pursue Shalom: The Enemy of Anxiety

Famous Psychologist and Author David Elkind has identified 4 kinds of stress that affect adolescence. One that is very difficult to combat is stress from an unknown source coming at an unknown time. It is that ominous feeling that something is coming and I have no way to prepare for it.

Elkind says that Faith is a powerful force for overcoming this threatening anxiety. Scripture calls it a Shield. (Ephesians 6:16) It is the powerful protection against an invisible adversary. It calms the unreasonable fears that are common to the awakening mind of the adolescent.

This is not passive meditation. It isn’t wishful thinking. It is being so fully convinced that God will not allow you to experience a trauma that you cannot endure. Most students have not been pushed to the extent where they have had to rely on God for this protection but they do not realize that they need it to protect them from the everyday things that cause them anxiety.

Don’t Ignore it but don’t coddle it or model it.

Adolescent anxiety will continue to be a problem for some of your students. Some will be gripped by paralyzing fear that will dominate their thoughts. Others will experience it episodically. Helping students face fears, build resistance, and establish an effective faith in God is their best defence.

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Ron Powell

ronpowell

Ron Powell is the Adviser to the Director of the Youth Ministry Institute at Vanguard College. He has been involved in youth ministry for over 30 years. He continues to volunteer, write, teach, and speak to parents, leaders and teens. If you would like to contact him you can email ron.powell@vanguardcollege.com

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