Jo Rowe believes understanding how our boidies work will help us provide a good approach to anxiety

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For the past five years, anxiety in teens has been steadily rising. According to The National Institute of Health, nearly 1 in 3 teenagers will experience an anxiety disorder in their teenage years, often stretching into their adulthood. The Covid pandemic has exacerbated this trend and we are seeing more children and teens suffering with anxiety. As parents, it can be quite hard to know when we need to step in and do something to help.

Anxiety can be OK

Firstly, it’s important to say that anxiety, in itself, is not the enemy. Anxiety is a body’s normal reaction to perceived danger or important events. It can be like an internal alarm system that alerts the brain to danger; the brain then helps the body prepare to deal with the danger. For example, anxiety causes the chain of reactions to be able to jump out of the way of a speeding car, or run from a falling object.

But anxiety also lets the brain know when something important is happening; the stress response sharpens our reflexes and thinking. Anxiety can act as a prompt to remember important things, (it helps our kids remember their textbook, or to revise for the exam). A certain amount of anxiety keeps us safe and enables us to perform and succeed when we need to. Anxiety triggers something called the “fight-flight-freeze” response (F3). This automatic response affects our thoughts, body, and behaviours. When faced with a potential threat, the thoughts focus on the danger, the body revs up to help protect itself, and then it takes action (fight, flight, or freeze). The F3 system is critical to our survival from true threat or danger, but what happens when there is no real danger? Interestingly, anxiety can also trigger this system into action when we believe there is a threat or danger even if there isn’t.

The hormones factor

Hormones also can over inflate this F3 response. Big reactions to small incidences are a classic hormone response. For example, a teenager may yell at a parent for bugging them about booking their driving test when they don’t feel ready (fight). Or they call you to pick them up early from a new activity because they don’t feel comfortable around unfamiliar people (flight). Or, they may feel as though their mind goes blank when the teacher asks them a question (freeze). Although these incidents aren’t life threatening, the same F3 response causes their body to act so though they are. Again these behaviours are relatively normal, and as kids grow, they will hopefully be able to regulate themselves in the moment and breathe through the F3 response.

However, there are times when these F3 responses are in overdrive, causing real distress and panic. Being a teenager is tough! A new increased sense of self, makes teens painfully aware of how they are performing, fitting in and acting in their world. Anxiety can arise when social situations are difficult. Exam and work stress also adds another layer of anxiety. Our society pushes teenagers quickly through the education system, and before they know it they’re having to choose GCSE options, then A levels and then make career choices when they’re not really sure of who they are and what they want to do. Family dynamics and physical body changes, grief or sickness can add yet another layer of anxiety creating the perfect storm. The F3 response can be activated several times a day; a surprise test, a social argument, a fight with a parent, thinking about the future. Repeated occurrences of the F3 response (fight ,flight ,freeze) can cause our teen to get stuck in the response and unable to regulate themselves and restore their clear logical thinking and reponses.

So how do we spot the signs?

Anxiety will manifest differently in different people. For some teenagers, anxiety will manifest as a shutdown. They are stuck in a flight response and the way they deal with it is to withdraw and hide. This can look like avoidance of school, absences, sicknesses and headaches, low mood, and a general desire to be alone. This is a classic flight response.

For others, anxiety looks like anger (the fight response!). Volatile teens can be masking real anxiety. Sometimes, kids will pick a fight with those around them just to discharge some of the stored adrenaline from the F3 response. Sibling bickering, fighting, shouting and slamming doors can be signs that kids are struggling with anxiety.

Some teens are excellent at hiding their anxiety because it feels like a weakness. High performing teenagers might go into an overdrive of preparation. This could look like working too hard, exercising too much, eating disorders or perfectionism. This group of kids will push themselves until their bodies can’t cope with the stress anymore. Panic attacks, hair and weight loss (or gain), tic disorders are likely signs that their bodies are just not coping with the stress.

So what can we do?

Teaching our kids how to manage the stress and anxiety of life is so important. There are healthy choices that we can encourage our teens to make in the early stages that can really help manage the stress response. If our kids can recover and self regulate after an F3 stress response, they will feel less anxious and panicky. Teaching our kids the skills, in the moment and in recovery, are vital to coping well with anxiety.

1) Sleep - getting enough sleep is vital for our teens to deal with their days. It has been proven that sleep deprivation can trigger the F3 response on its own. Sleep helps with recovery too.

2) Exercise - working off the adrenaline spike caused by the F3 response can help ease the anxiety. Exercise releases endorphins which are a natural antidote to stress. Taking a walk or going for a run can help with recovery. For some kids, a 20 second burst of star jumps can lower the immediate effects of an F3 response in the moment itself, allowing the body to access the logical part of the brain again.

3) Breathing - When our body is in the F3 response our breathing naturally speeds up. By taking control of our breathing and taking deep breaths, we can lessen the effect of the F3 response and actually shorten it. This takes practice. Teaching our teens breathing exercises will help them to manage in a moment of F3 response.

4) Talking - encouraging our teens to talk about anything worrying them does help. Talking allows the brain to process the perceived threat and access the logical part of the brain (frontal cortex) rather than be stuck in the part of the brain that controls the F3 response (the amygdala). Talking allows the body to downgrade threat and allows it to refile the stress differently. When stress is refiled in the brain as ’manageable’ the F3 response isn’t triggered again by the same event, limiting the number of re-triggering events.

5) Laughter - Laughing releases endorphins which are the natural antidote to stress and anxiety. Watching something funny on TV, having a pillow fight, doing something just for the fun of it, can have a massive effect on our teens mental health

6) Connecting to Jesus - Jesus promises that we can cast our cares onto Him because He cares for us deeply. (1 Peter 5:7) When our kids feel overwhelmed, encourage them to connect to The One who loves them most through prayer and His word. When our kids feed themselves with truth, it’s guaranteed they will find more peace.

When it’s too hard.

The above steps can really make a difference, but sometimes anxiety has got such a hold that our kids need some extra help. So, if we are worried about our teens, what’s the next step?

1) Talk to your GP - going to see you doctor can start the ball rolling and help get access to specialist help. Sometimes medication is needed to help with hormones or for anxiety. A GP can also refer your teen for counselling from a trained psychologist.

2) Talk to your teen’s school - Schools are now able to give lots of support to teens for their mental health. Many have counsellors on site. Schools can help manage workload and can help with timetable management and return-to-school plans.

3) Contact a Youth mental Health charity -Youthscape and their ministry ’Headstrong’, Young Minds or The Samaritans are all great charities where you can get more information or help for your teen.  For more from PremierNexGen, look here.