Anxiety is normal, it’s something that we all experience and it’s impossible to avoid. It’s really important that teenagers understand this and also that anxiety does not define who they are, it is not part of their personality, it will come and go and we can learn to manage it better.
Most of the time we don’t actually face anything life threatening but our ancient brain responds as if we do. Obviously Covid-19 is life threatening however most of the anxieties experienced by teens will not stem from this, it’s the uncertainty resulting from the pandemic which is heightening levels of anxiety.
Teens are used to looking to adults for the answers (even if they then ignore them) – but we don’t know what’s going to happen in the current situation. That is scary for them. Worse still everything ‘normal’ has just been disrupted: schools are closed, they’re not going to see their friends and don’t know how long for and many have had exams cancelled. They are worrying about things like ‘Will I ever get a job if I am given my predicted grades for my GCSEs, will I get to do the A-levels I want to or go to university’. Be honest with them when you don’t know the answers but try researching them together. Also help them to focus on the things that are hopeful and more definite.
Five steps to understanding and coping with anxiety for teens:
1. Learn about anxiety, how it operates and why it’s normal. For example, anxiety kicks up physical responses like a racing heart, feeling tearful or angry – fearing this creates a vicious cycle. Anxiety also kicks up unpleasant thoughts and feelings and our natural urge is to try and analyse and reason with these. But perhaps counter intuitively that actually makes them worse. Knowledge is the first step to addressing anxiety.
We are being encouraged to use trusted sources to learn about Covid-19 the same is true about anything psychological. The well-meaning Instagram influencer does not count as a good source of information.
2. Social support is critical especially for teens who are at a point in life which depends on their peers more than any other. This is obviously difficult with the measures that are in place. The temptation for teens will be to reach for social media in order to stay connected but research points to this making anxiety worse. It may be a good idea to sit down and talk to your teen about this and come up with a strategy. Don’t stop them from using social media but help them to understand that talking on the phone or via facetime is far healthier. They really need to speak to friends but how they do that matters to their mental health.
While teens are working it can feel comforting to have the radio on or listen to music. The different voices will make them feel less isolated.
3. Physically address anxiety:
- Mindfulness. I’m not a good example of making this work in my house with my teenage daughter. However, if you can get your teen to engage the benefits are huge. Done properly mindfulness helps to develop the connections between the frontal lobe and the emotional centres of the brain making it easier to manage anxiety. Suggested mindfulness apps for teens are below.
- Breathing – slowly and deeply. In through your nose while counting to 3 drawing the breath right down to your tummy, hold for 1 then out through your mouth counting to three. It works by activating the bodies relaxation response.
- Exercise – anything that raises the heart rate also releases GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) a ‘calm down neurochemical’ which helps rebalance everything in the brain.
- Sleep – a routine bedtime and good sleep is essential to managing anxiety. Sleep expert Littlehale advises the athletes he works with ‘no tech for 90 mins before bed’ (we only manage 60 and get eye rolling every night). A difficult one to enforce but really key.
4. Focus on strengths – anxiety focuses us onto the negative. It’s great to help teens to look at their positives. Get them to write down what they’re passionate about, what their strengths are and how they can make use of them in everyday situations.
5. Listen – while teens would rather do anything than speak to their parents they need to air their thoughts and feelings – to help get them in perspective and to learn how to reframe their thinking when it is overly negative. We need to take the lead on talking even if they throw it back. It’s not OK for them to be dismissive of your feelings but perhaps helpful to know that as adults the connection between the frontal lobe of our brain and the emotional centres is stronger. This makes it easier for us to step back from worries, concerns and emotional reactions than it is does for adolescents whose brains are still developing.
Finally let them know that – Thoughts are thoughts. They are not predictions. If they gently let come and let them go they will pass. If they try too hard to understand them or force them to go away they will get bigger. It’s taken me years to realise despite my job but it’s one worth having as a constant reminder.
Mindfulness apps for teens:
Photo by mentatdgt pexels.com