If the Bible tells me not to worry, then why am I so anxious all the time? It was questions like this that flooded my mind as a teenager after being diagnosed with anxiety.
I attended a loving church, but no one wanted to answer - or even explore - these sorts of questions. Church members would discourage me from thinking this way and unintentionally pour guilt into my mind for even contemplating these thoughts. Surely I couldn’t be the only teenage Christian living in the void? During my adolescence, I quickly learnt that emotional health and God didn’t mix.
Over a decade later, after becoming a professionally qualified youth worker, I realised that young people were still asking similar questions. This void in conversation still exists, yet anxiety in the younger generations is on the rise. The responsibility is ours to help close this void and create a culture of resilient children and young people.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a word we use to describe feelings of unease, worry and fear. It incorporates the emotions and the physical sensations we might experience when we are worried or nervous about something. Although we usually find it unpleasant, anxiety is related to the ‘fight or flight’ response; our normal biological reaction to feeling threatened (Mind, 2015).
Anxiety is experienced by everyone at different times in their lives. It is often an unpleasant experience, but it is completely normal in most cases. Common times when a young person may experience bouts of anxiety are sitting an exam or starting a new school. After the exam is sat or the first few days of a new school have passed, the anxious symptoms usually stop and you can continue with normal life.
Signs and symptoms
There are all sorts of physical and physiological indicators that show a young person might be suffering from anxiety. Here’s a list of some common factors to keep an eye out for:
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feeling ‘on edge’
- Hot flushes
- Feeling a sense of numbness
- Pins and needles
- Fearing the worst / sense of dread
Perhaps there’s a particular child or young person that comes to mind when thinking about anxiety. Take a moment to consider whether they are displaying any of these signs and symptoms. Do they struggle to ‘chill out’ in the youth club? Or is the child complaining of having knots in their stomach? It’s important we don’t overanalyse an individual’s behaviour(s), but rather find a balance between completely ignoring them and calling an ambulance. It might be helpful to keep a mental note of these factors and monitor if they increase or decrease in that person.
Some of these signs and symptoms may be a bit trickier to spot, for example difficulty in sleeping. In these instances, it’s important to engage in conversation with the child or young person. They may be complaining to a friend that they can’t sleep or may appear very tired. Don’t be scared to have a conversation with them about how they’re doing in life. As a Church, we’re here to support one another and that includes ‘checking in’ with each other.
Just because someone is anxious, it doesn’t mean they have an anxiety disorder. It becomes a problem when it affects a person’s day-to-day life for a prolonged period of time. This could be when someone cannot relax or worries about worrying. It’s not something that can be ‘brushed off’, but instead needs support to become manageable.
In these cases, when we use the term ‘anxiety’ we are usually referring more specifically to ‘generalised anxiety disorder’ (GAD). Anxiety is an umbrella word that includes other anxiety-related disorders such as panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Building a resilient faith
Children and young people are experiencing anxiety and anxiety-related disorders more commonly than ever before. It’s as if a lifestyle of anxious living has become the norm and one to which younger generations have to acclimatise.
There are so many tensions facing our children and young people: from seeing the response to global terrorist attacks trending on Twitter to sitting in a classroom while teachers pile on the pressure of exams, or teenagers being pressured into sending ‘nudes’, while other children are being bullied in primary school.
How do we help them navigate these tensions? Where does faith even begin to be included? How can the Church become
a place of peace and comfort in the midst of fear-induced nightmares and stomachs tied in knots?
During my adolescence, I quickly learnt that emotional health and God didn’t mix
The Church should be a place where people of all ages can come, share life stressors and be embraced as God’s loved children. As those working with children and adolescents, we can help create an environment to build a resilient faith.
Anxiety is often seen in a negative light; a weakness or flaw in a person. In the Church, we are guilty of tainting anxiety and anxiety-related disorders with a lack of faith and the view of God being disappointed with us because we are anxious.
What if we turned it around and saw normal life stresses - like exams or new schools – as an opportunity to build resilience? What if we modelled to younger generations that we can face adversities and grow in our faith at the same time?
Through building a resilient faith, we can help our children and young people see that, just because God didn’t respond to their prayer request the first time - or perhaps didn’t respond in the way they wanted him to - doesn’t mean they should get stressed out and give up. Instead, perhaps this is a chance to embrace the unknown rather than becoming overwhelmed by it.
Parents or carers
Parents or carers are great and we want to champion them in all their work raising the younger generation. It’s inevitable that we’ll come into contact with them through our work with children and young people. This could be a regular conversation with them when they come and collect their child or a distant wave in the car park. It’s important that we honour these relationships and work with the parents and carers to help build resilient individuals.
If you’re concerned about a child’s anxiety and feel it’s important to share this with their parents, be wise in how you talk to them. Raising a child is a wonderful experience, but can also be incredibly difficult. Start the conversation by explaining that you’ve been exploring the topic of anxiety with the group. Share the points you’ve noticed and ask if the parents have also noticed it. It doesn’t have to be a particularly heavy-hearted conversation, rather share with them that it is an opportunity to work together to best support their child.
Sometimes it may not be appropriate to talk with a young person’s guardian, especially if they seem to be one of the causes of the child’s anxiety. Use your wisdom to determine if a higher level of support is needed and speak with your supervisor to decide what the next steps could be. It might be deciding to have a conversation with the child and seeing if they’d like a mentor or exploring where they could go for support.
Take confidence in the fact that anxiety doesn’t have to become debilitating. There are all sorts of support and treatment options available that can help people in different ways. A helpful place to start when identifying a child or young person’s anxiety is to review their daily lifestyle. Take a moment and use the questions on the next page to aid your thought process.
How can the Church become a place of peace and comfort in the midst of fear-induced nightmares and stomachs tied in knots?
- How is their diet and what does it look like?
- Are they being fuelled mainly by caffeinated energy drinks and sugary snacks?
- On the flipside, are they showing a lack of energy due to not eating much?
- What does their sleep life look like?
- Are they shattered and struggling to sleep because they can’t switch off their thoughts?
- Do they get eight hours of sleep but regularly wake up?
- Is exercise part of their daily routine?
- Do they become unhealthily tired because they head to the gym every day?
- Do they actively avoid exercise because they are worried what others think?
If anxiety has started to become a legitimate concern in a child or young person’s life, advising them to go to their GP is important. Don’t overlook someone’s symptoms simply because of their young age or circumstance. Use your judgement and chat to your supervisor if you think this is a necessary step. The GP will determine if the individual needs additional support through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), counselling, medication or another therapeutic intervention.
If you’ve decided it’s right to make contact with a parent or carer about the child’s anxiety, then these questions can help the conversation. Show an attitude of working together and make it clear that you’re not blaming them in any way.
It might be helpful to introduce a topical ‘parents evening’ once a term. These could be hour-long gatherings where you share information around how to support their children in all sorts of areas, from anxiety to social media. Gathering parents together can be an incredibly powerful time as often they feel they are not good enough or struggle to know what to do next. Build a working relationship with them, rather than seeing them as a detachment from your ministry.
Activity: vitamins and water
The good news is that not everyone needs a higher level of support, and often early intervention can be led by children’s, families and youth workers.
A practical way to explore anxiety with younger generations could be using the vitamin and water analogy. In this instance, you could explore the passage from 1 Peter 5:7, where we are reminded to cast our anxiety on God because he cares for us.
Place a large bowl of water in the centre of the room. Break up vitamin tablets into small pieces and ask the group to imagine that they are like our anxieties. Each time you offer your anxieties to
God, it’s like dropping a tablet in the water. The anxiety is diluted in God’s hand. Explain that the cause of the anxiety may not disappear, but the effect it has on us is less concentrated.
Ask the group to stand in a circle and, while each taking a piece of tablet, silently think of an anxiety they are experiencing. Take it in turns to go around and put the tablet in the water as a symbol of casting that anxiety on God, remembering that he cares for us.
Activity: Snap with a twist
One incredibly helpful way of supporting people’s mental health is to enhance their emotional literacy. Like learning the alphabet and counting numbers, putting words to our emotions can help us understand, cope and express our emotions. A practical way to do this with a youth group could be by playing Snap with the emotions playing cards by selfharmUK (or make your own). The twist is that each time you ‘snap’, you have to answer the question or statement that is on the card.
Over to you
Anxiety can affect anyone, including you. Pause for a moment and contemplate the following questions:
- Are there any areas of your work that are causing you anxiety? Is that OK because it’s a new job, or does it cause you sleepless nights and nausea?
- Is there a particular child or young person you are anxious about? Why? Are you in a position where you can support them? Or does it need it go to a higher level of intervention?
- How do you manage anxiety when it appears from common life stressors?
Equipping yourself to best support others around anxiety - and mental health in general - doesn’t need to be a lonely experience. Book onto training events near you to connect with others and find local support networks. ‘Anxiety in Adolescence’ is a three-hour equipping course from Youthscape, which is a great place to start.
Showing that you’re open to chatting about mental health and faith in your groups will help close the void in conversation that so many young people face today. Be encouraged that you are taking part in a much larger movement of breaking down the negative stigma Christians face when experiencing poor mental health. Remember, you’re not alone and there is so much support out there to help close the void.
Where to go next
Don’t stop here! Make a conscious effort to continue learning about anxiety and how you can best support yourself and others around this huge topic. Here are some helpful websites:
Anxiety UK - a national charity helping people with anxiety: anxietyuk.org.uk
Moodjuice - a website created by the NHS that helps people think about their emotional health and includes free downloadable resources: moodjuice.scot.nhs.uk
Mind - a mental health charity providing advice and support to those experiencing mental illness: mind.org.uk