Tag Archives: anxiety

Back-To-School: When Anxiety Rears its Head

The end of summer is a difficult time for many teens, especially older teens who are entering their final years of high school and anticipating the challenges that will come with that, and first year college students who may be moving away from home for the first time. So how can kids think about anxiety in a way that will help them continue to move forward in the face of fear and often overwhelming feelings? My own personal experience with anxiety might help shed some light on this all-too-common issue.

The problem with anxiety is that it is insistent. It is conniving and coy and always trying to convince me that I have to do something – or, NOT do something. Everything is fear-based with anxiety and, in my case, as soon as I started listening, it was incessantly in my ear, my brain, buzzing. But over a period of years I learned that the best thing I could do when she showed up was nothing. I promised myself that I wouldn’t ever make big decisions out of fear, and it took many repetitions of this mantra and even written reminders on my laptop, my bathroom mirror, my desk to help me hear it in my head over the sound of Anxiety’s yapping.

My first instinct was to fight Anxiety, and it worked for a while, but it was so much work. I was exhausted and Anxiety just kept coming back. Everything changed when I learned that instead of combating it, I could stop, breathe, acknowledge its presence. I could listen to the frantic admonitions, the nay-saying, the fear-mongering, and let them pass right through me. I started to pretend that they were the ramblings of some sad soul on the subway. I nodded with sympathy, heard Anxiety out, and released it all. I don’t have to believe any of it. I get to understand where Anxiety is coming from and honor it and also not follow its advice. Anxiety will tell you that it wants what is best for you, that it will keep you safe, but that path keeps you small and afraid. It keeps you in the dark – isolated and lonely. True, I might be safe, but that’s not how I want to live, and I’m pretty sure, if your kids are honest with themselves, that’s not the life they want either.

THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT ANXIETY

It’s important to remember that Anxiety isn’t  me. Anxiety is afraid and it always will be – it is literally the only reason Anxiety exists, but it is not why I’m here. I have other reasons for being, and while Anxiety is loud and compelling and jacks up my heart rate and makes my palms sweaty and my head spin, it is possible to gradually separate myself from Anxiety. I can hear its words as though I’m underwater – muffled and distorted – I can let them pass through me and not stick.

It is also important to remember that Anxiety hates being ignored. It will come back again and again. I know this. But I also know that everything I’ve ever done that I’m proud of, that was worth it, that gave me joy, was in spite of it. Going to college. Getting married. Having a baby. Those were all things that paralyzed me, that made Anxiety stand up and say, “What do you think you’re doing? You don’t know how to do this! This is terrifying!” And I believed that some of the time, but I did those things anyway, and I don’t regret it. It is possible to move forward, step by step, with Anxiety right next to you, yammering in your ear that you couldn’t do this, sweating and heart pounding.

Maybe most important, Anxiety is quiet when you’re busy – when you’re doing your thing. Because you’re calling it on its BS. You’re proving it wrong. You’re showing it that you CAN do this, that you WON’T mess it up, that you are capable of going out there and living your fullest life. That’s also why it’s loudest before bed and right when you wake up – because you’re chilling and not out doing, but if you can work on silencing it (or acknowledging, listening, and dismissing) at those times, it gets much easier.

KEY THINGS TO REMEMBER

*Know who you are. Know what you want. Know what you’re willing to do to get there. Anxiety doesn’t like clarity. The more clear you are, the less Anxiety will pipe up.

*All you have to do is the next right thing. When Anxiety is chatting away in your ear, it’s tempting to believe that you have to have it all figured out, that you have to have a plan. But, to be honest, there is never a point in your life where you have to have it all figured out. When you’re dealing with anxiety, the best thing to do is take the next step forward. And the next. And the next.

*Bonus points for noticing the things that feel right, that make you smile. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to Anxiety. If you get immersed in school and you start to enjoy yourself, do yourself a favor and take a moment to chalk one up for you and rub it in Anxiety’s face. You’ve got this.

*More bonus points for patting yourself on the back every time you go to class, talk to someone, join an exercise group, get out of bed. Those are monumental acts when Anxiety is riding shotgun.

When Anxiety Shows up as Anger

If you have a child or student who struggles with anxiety, it is vital to remember that, in adolescents, anxiety can show up very differently than it does in younger children. As I’ve noted before, one incredibly important mantra to repeat when a child acts out is

where there is bad behavior, there is pain.

Yes, even in teenagers. Even if we think they should “know better.” And for individuals who are experiencing anxiety, there is an even more compelling reason why we can’t expect them to act or speak in calm, rational ways when they are in the throes of a strong emotional response.

Often, for people who aren’t feeling anxious, anxiety reactions can seem out of proportion to the situation. But we have to remember that for the person who is triggered, the reaction is very real. Take the example of the war veteran walking down the street one day when a car backfires nearby. Anyone on the street will likely startle at the sound, but as soon as they look around and assess the situation, they are able to recognize what the source of the noise was and temper their response. But for the person who associates that sound with something terrifying and/or life-threatening, that sound triggers a series of chemical responses that overrides their ability to be rational in the moment. Their heart begins racing, they have a huge adrenaline spike, and their brain tells them to duck or run. It’s survival mode. The reaction is all in the context.

This is exactly what it’s like for people with anxiety, and for adolescents, because their amygdala (emotion center of the brain) is in charge, any fight or flight response is magnified, and that is what we as educators and parents need to remember when we’re in conflict with kids like this.

Over time, we may be able to predict what kinds of things activate this kind of anxiety reaction in our kids. Maybe it’s a certain tone of voice or a slamming door or yelling. It could be a threat of punishment or the silent treatment. Ask them in a moment of calm and you may be surprised at what you hear.

KEY REMINDERS:

  • their experience is theirs and it’s totally valid. Even if you don’t understand it or it feels disproportionate to you, downplaying it or telling them that the way they feel is silly will only make things worse;
  • the fight/flight response is very compelling. If they feel like they need to walk away from a conflict (flee), forcing them to stay will give them no alternative but to fight;
  • learning can’t take place in a brain flooded with emotion. When someone is in the middle of an anxiety reaction, you will not be able to reason with them, and it’s not their fault. They are physiologically incapable of processing what you’re saying or doing with their rational brain;
  • you’re the adult here. Even if this teenager in front of you looks and acts and demands to be treated like a little adult, they aren’t yet. Their brain won’t be fully mature until they’re around the age of 25. That means that they can’t be expected to hold other people accountable for their behaviors, have strong personal boundaries, and be able to articulate exactly what they’re feeling yet. It is up to us as the adults in their lives who care about them to create a safe enough space for them to talk to us, understand that when they’re acting out they are expressing some need to us, and help them figure out better ways to deal with their frustrations and anxieties.

Questions? Leave them in the comments section. I’m happy to explain further if necessary.

Next time – the rules my family came up with for having constructive disagreements with adolescents.

 

Adolescent Anxiety

Teens and tweens are an anxious bunch. It is well-known and well-documented that many kids struggle with anxiety disorders and many are medicated for them and treated individually. Unfortunately, their brains are primed to be ruled by their emotions during this time, but it is possible to help them understand anxiety and begin to tame it. Because it is so prevalent (more than 20% of teens experience significant anxiety), we can harness the power of groups to help kids this age find solutions.

Anxiety thrives inside our heads. The nagging thoughts we have often grow bigger as they rattle around in our brains, reminding us how scary the world is and how unprepared we are to deal with it. But often, when we verbalize those thoughts we can see them for what they really are and realize that they aren’t rooted in reality. That is the power of groups. Adolescents are particularly social creatures, drawn to connect with their peers in an intense, all-consuming way. In my generation, that manifested itself in hours on the telephone every night, and today we see it with kids texting and FaceTiming each other. They rely on each other for social cues and support and we can capitalize on that to help them help each other.

By talking about anxiety as part of our curriculum, we are not only normalizing the experience for teens and reminding them that they are not the only ones who feel like that, but we are creating a network of peers that have some important tools to combat it. The exercises we teach them are rooted in the most recent brain science and mindfulness practices.

Often, when we are in the throes of an anxiety attack, we can’t rationalize or remember how to counteract it. It is important to have friends that we can draw on to remind us how to re-set our brain’s response, to give us a reality check, to reassure us that we aren’t dying. The more we practice defusing anxiety, the easier it gets, and if we can learn this as adolescents, we will be much more able to handle difficult situations as adults.

Want more information? Contact us to set up a workshop at kari@theSELFProject.com.