Anxiety and Youth
In the last five years, I have seen an increasing number of people coming to see me about anxiety-related issues. What stands out to me is the large proportion of that are under twenty-year-olds and teenagers.
When anxiety levels are high, especially for those experiencing panic attacks, there can be all kinds of unhelpful associated feelings of shame, insecurity and humiliation. So, the first thing I communicate is this:
Anxiety is completely normal.
If you are young and feeling anxious, it’s really important that you recognise how normal this is. I mean, it’s not surprising at all, you face pressures that I, as a child of the 70s and a teenager in the 80s, never dreamed of. I never got homework at Primary school and we rarely got tested. The pressure to perform was so different. I would get home from school, get changed out of my uniform (if I remembered – my poor mother!) and then go out and play. That was it! No extra work and no worries about looming exams and tests.
Secondary school involved a little more pressure but not that much. We got homework and we were tested, however, the schools weren’t caught up in competing for league table supremacy and the teaching staff were not assessed as stringently on their pupil’s results. Because school staff were under less pressure, we got less dished down to us.
Today, education standards are higher, of that there is no doubt, but in order to maintain high standards, the powers that be have decided accountability is the key. This ultimately filters down to the teachers pushing the students to do more and perform better. Whether they consciously intend to or not, teachers will inevitably pressure the children because they are under pressure. I feel for them, it is such a difficult dilemma to manage.
On top of that, young people now have to deal with other stressors, such as the existential threat of looming environmental disaster and the great difficulty in finding moments of quiet and stillness. The weight of these issues cannot be brushed aside.
Eco-anxiety is a very real concern. As a species, we are wreaking havoc on the planet and the consequences are still uncertain. Smart young people sense this threat and it can gnaw away at the back of the mind.
The technology we have created for them has not given them more free time, as some thought it might. Instead, it just means we can now all get more done in the same amount of time available.
There are other reasons I believe young people are now more likely to be anxious than previous generations but the blog would become an essay.
The bottom line, I believe, is that we have not evolved quickly enough over the past 260 years, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, in order to cope with the attentional demands we now face. The hardware of the mind is pretty similar to our ancestors of the 18th century but the world we live in is much more complex.
So, how do we better manage the situation?
“As the parent of a young person, what can I do?”
If you are the parent or guardian of a young person who is struggling to handle the anxiety, seek help. It is hard to see loved ones go through this and there are so many wonderful and dedicated counsellors, therapists, meditation coaches and professionals (some working in schools and for the NHS, some private) who will be able to help. They will teach them tactics and strategies and give them tools for their emotion regulation toolbox. Anxiety can be hard to manage and sometimes a completely non-intuitive approach makes all the difference. An experienced practitioner will get a good sense of what will work best.
If you are thinking about private therapy, finances often become a concern here. As a parent who has faced financial difficulties, I understand this dilemma. I can assure you, this may be one of the best decisions you will ever make and a good therapist will be able to work with your situation, nonjudgmentally and confidentially – don’t be afraid to say “I’m not sure I can afford weekly sessions” if that is your situation. You will not be the first person, or the last, who has said the same thing.
The current younger generation deserve an opportunity to develop their inner resources in order to become the people they will need to be, to solve the crises they will face.
We don’t have to switch out, we don’t have to escape and we don’t have to pretend we are strong or fake feeling great when we feel weak and crappy.
How do we manage these feelings and thoughts?
Because we don’t naturally hold the resources to automatically manage the stresses we face, we need to implement strategies which enable us to use our remarkable resources more effectively; strategies such as being fully present and attentive to what is occurring in this moment, rather than swept up in the worry about possible futures, strategies which remind us that we are very, very capable creatures and strategies which help us to remain composed.
Am I talking about mindfulness? Yes, kind of, but there are so many other models and tactics which can make a huge difference to our belief that “we can handle this”. We don’t have to switch out, we don’t have to escape and we don’t have to pretend we are strong or fake feeling great when we feel weak and crappy.
We can remain authentic and honest about what we think and feel and then problem-solve and figure out a way forward. If, however, coping is all you can muster right now,that’s OK! Good for you, for doing just that, coping. The strength and vitality that will allow you to move from this position will come with patience.
The evidence from your history would clearly show that you can handle life and all the troubles that come with it. You may not have handled those troubles perfectly but who does? Those “mistakes” and “failures” can be used to inform a wiser choice next time.
If you are young and having a tough time with anxiety, worry and stress, you are not alone. It is normal. There is nothing wrong with you.
In addition to this, I would also add:
You can handle it; you may not feel you can right now but you can. With patience, support and love, you will realise just how remarkably gifted and strong you are.
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