- August 31, 2023
- Jennifer Salerno
Do you feel overwhelmed by the sight of back-to-back calls on your work calendar or a full week of family appointments?
Moments before you begin a public speaking engagement or manage a conflict with a peer, how fast is your heart beating?
If you answered “Yep, really fast, and 100%” to these not-so-pleasant questions, join the club. 🙋
Feeling overwhelmed by a packed schedule is normal – none of us want to be slammed all week. And, experiencing physical symptoms in an emotionally stressful situation is also common. That’s our sympathetic nervous system gearing up to fight, flight, or freeze. Being concerned about how your words will be received by someone you care about is something most of us experience, too. That’s simply called empathy for our fellow humans!
All of these scenarios are examples of experiencing stress.
Many people use the terms stress and anxiety interchangeably even though they’re not the same thing. It’s true that stress and anxiety do lead to many of the same emotional and physical symptoms, like fatigue and difficulty sleeping. But stress is usually brought on by an external trigger like getting stuck in traffic on your way to an important appointment, whereas anxiety is defined by persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of an external stressor.
As adults, we are (hopefully) able to identify when we’re experiencing stress and how to cope with it in a healthy way. Maybe you like to do yoga and work in your garden or listen to rock & roll while lifting weights. When we experience anxiety symptoms that persist beyond situational stressors, some of our options include therapy, medication, and making lifestyle changes.
Youth who experience stress and anxiety need support to learn how to identify what they’re feeling (is it situational stress or persistent anxiety?) and identify healthy coping mechanisms that work for them. Youth also need the oversight of caring adults who can recognize when professional help is appropriate.
In this blog, we will review the latest data on youth anxiety and offer 8 tips to help youth manage their anxiety this year.
Anxiety in Youth by the Numbers
Imagine you’re a middle school math teacher. You teach one hundred 8th grade students throughout your 4 class periods each day. Statistically, 9 or 10 of your students have a diagnosed, clinical anxiety disorder. Many more of them struggle with anxiety symptoms like feeling worried or experiencing somatic (physical) symptoms.
Put another way, national estimates for youth ages 3 – 17 ever having a diagnosis of anxiety is 9.4%, or approximately 5.8 million. College students are also struggling. In the 2021-2022 Healthy Minds Survey of 96,000 students across the US, 37% reported anxiety disorders.
The bottom line: from elementary kids to young adults, youth are struggling with anxiety at higher rates than ever before.
Many students experience heightened symptoms of anxiety and stress during the back-to-school season. New schedules, new homework expectations, new peers, new social pressures – there is a lot of change with the start of each academic year. Though many youth find the sight of their friends and the familiarity of school comforting, all the change can be overwhelming. Let’s look at a few actionable tips to keep top of mind for everyone involved in the wraparound care of at-risk youth.
2 Tips for Parents
If you’re a parent (or working with parents) of a youth struggling with anxiety, take heart. This is a hard season, but there are tangible actions you can take today to help alleviate some of the difficulties tweens, adolescents, or college-age young adults are experiencing.
- For parents of teens: practice active listening with open-ended questions and reflections to help your adolescent feel heard and validated with their emotions. This creates a spirit of trust between you both. Here are a few ways these conversations might go:
- You’ve been working all week on your summer homework for your AP classes. How are you feeling about the classes so far?
- Your best friend is going to a different school. It’s hard to think about the two of you not being in classes together. What are some things you can do to stay close?
- I see you’re upset. Tell me more about not having a smartphone when everyone else does.
- For parents of younger children: help them ‘come back to earth’ from spiraling thoughts with the 3 – 3 – 3 rule. Ask your child to name 3 things they can see, identify 3 sounds they can hear, and move 3 different parts of their bodies. This mindfulness strategy helps children engage their senses and focus on reality rather than worrying about what might happen in the future.
2 Tips for Youth
Whether you’re 9 or 19 or (any age), anxiety can be crippling. If you are working with youth experiencing racing thoughts, feelings of nervousness, muscle tension, and other symptoms of anxiety, focus on these 2 things:
- Practice mindfulness strategies that work for each individual teen. Not every strategy will be effective for every teen, but the only way to learn what will help them cope with distressing symptoms is to try different strategies. They may need to work with a therapist or another trusted adult to find what works best.
Here are a few to try:
- Journaling/ free writing
- Spend time outdoors
- Practice deep breathing techniques such as counting slowly to 10 with a pattern of inhaling and exhaling
- Face it. (Do the thing that is inducing anxiety.) This may not always be possible, but there are times in life when anticipating the situation is worse than actually facing the situation. The hours leading up to a big test, standing in front of judges to audition for a musical, having the conversation to break up with your partner – these are all really hard things to do. But, the more we face the things that induce anxiety in us, the more equipped we become to manage the symptoms we feel. Conquering these fears is empowering for when they come up again.
2 Tips for Teachers
- Educators are often the first or only caring adults to recognize when something is wrong with a youth who is struggling. Teachers: take note if a student begins to act differently in class. Keep a log and/or share your observations with the school social worker or counselor. If you have a student expressing fears or worries about everyday aspects of their lives (“What will happen if my printer doesn’t work at home? How will I get to school if my dad gets a flat tire?”), they may be experiencing anxiety. Students may withdraw from their friend group at school, lash out at recess or in class, have a sudden drop in academic performance, or constantly seek reassurance from you. These are all signs of anxiety that may show up in a school setting.
- Work to create a calming environment in your classroom to reduce external stimulation that can increase stress. Try dimmer lights, calming music during independent work time, visual reminders of deep breathing and/or in-seat relaxation strategies, and more. Classroom structures that allow students to take short breaks and have options for how they demonstrate their knowledge (e.g., oral presentation or written report) are also helpful supports.
2 Tips for Professionals Working with Youth
- Screen, screen, screen! One of the best tools at our disposal to intervene effectively with youth experiencing anxiety is to identify early which students are struggling. Use evidence-based screening tools such as the Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-Item (GAD-7), the Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders (SCARED), or TELL-TALK-VENT, with all of your patients, students, or clients. Screening early and regularly will help ensure you are working with accurate data to develop appropriate interventions.
- Utilize motivational interviewing communication strategies to create a therapeutic atmosphere of empathy that is conducive to honest conversations. It is not uncommon for youth to try to hide their symptoms of stress and anxiety and feel nervous about disclosing the sources of their fears. When youth can trust the professional with whom they are working, they are more likely to disclose information that will lead to effective interventions.
Importance of Early Identification
Early identification is key to effective treatment of anxiety, and screening is the cornerstone of early identification. Did you know that most parents support mental health screening for their kids? In a multinational survey of nearly 1,000 parents and caregivers, 92% said they wanted their child screened for mental health issues at regular intervals. Families have varying preferences between quarterly and annual screenings, but the message was clear – parents see the growing prevalence of mental health challenges in youth of all ages AND they want to do something about it.
Let’s Do Something About It (Meet ΛDΛM)
The answer to youth anxiety is complex. Let us help you take the first step by understanding which youth are struggling (and why) with ΛDΛM. ΛDΛM is the only health technology available with age- and risk-targeted screeners backed by scientifically validated research plus evidence-based brief interventions tailored to the youth. Ready to learn how ΛDΛM can streamline the screening process for anxiety and associated risk behaviors for youth from elementary through young adulthood? Let’s talk.