Anxiety disorders are the most common class of mental disorders amongst young people – a 24.9% prevalence rate in 13-17 year olds, with a median age of onset of 11 years. These disorders are highly responsive to treatment, and yet only one third of sufferers receive therapy, possibly because most find it difficult to talk about their anxiety.
In the context of helping to raise awareness, and start a dialogue around anxiety, the PTA organised screenings of ‘Angst’ at all Ecolint campuses this month. En Bref attended the screening at La Chât to understand what the key messages are for parents.
‘Angst’ – What is the Film about?
The documentary, which is produced by the same Film Company which brought us ‘Screenagers’, features frank interviews with children and young adults about their anxiety and its impact on their lives. There is a special interview with multi-Olympic medal winner, Michael Phelps, who is an anxiety sufferer and a mental health advocate, and input by mental health experts about the causes of anxiety and its sociological effects.
One of these experts, Dr. Jerry Bubrick, Senior Director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, sums up the goal of the film – “In our world there is a stigma attached to mental health disorders. People see anxiety as a personal failing rather than a medical condition; they see it as something to be ashamed of, rather than something to be treated. In reality, anxiety is universal. It doesn’t discriminate – and it’s very treatable. We just need to acknowledge it and talk openly first.”
So what exactly is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of fear or panic. We ALL feel anxious sometimes, particularly when pushed outside our comfort zones – it is completely normal for a young person to feel worried about, say, settling into a new school, or about doing well academically (the two most common sources of anxiety for La Chât students, according to Deputy Head, Alexandra Conchard, who introduced the film). However, anxiety becomes a problem when the feeling of fear or panic stays once the difficult situation is over.
School Psychologist, Catherine Hatt, described the difference between normal and pathological anxiety as follows – ‘Normal anxiety doesn’t interfere with a person’s wellbeing, and doesn’t prevent a person from achieving their goals. Pathological anxiety, on the other hand, is persistent and excessive; it causes impairment and leads to dysfunctional coping.’
For example, all students might feel anxiety at arriving late for class. However, a student experiencing normal anxiety would be able to override their feelings and enter the classroom, while one with pathological anxiety may be paralysed by fear and miss the lesson. In this latter situation, the brain is unable to distinguish between threatening and unthreatening situations. The amygdala, the part of the brain which regulates the fight/flight impulse, is in overdrive, preventing the anxiety sufferer from accessing the frontal lobe, the part of the brain which controls logical thought and reason.
Once anxiety tips into the pathological category, it is very important to seek professional help, advises Catherine Hatt.
But how can parents tell if their child’s anxiety levels are pathological, particularly if that child is a ‘challenging’ adolescent?
Signs of Anxiety:
Many of the signs of anxiety mentioned in the film are linked to the sufferer’s attempts to regain the control which they feel they lack.
One behaviour is avoidance; for example being ‘sick’ to avoid school and therefore not have to deal with an anxiety-inducing situation, eg bullying, or giving a presentation.
The young person may try to exert control in other areas of their life, for example food intake, which can lead to eating disorders.
Anxiety can manifest in physical symptoms, such as stomach pain (which makes sense physiologically since stress increases the levels of cortisol, which in turn increase hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which leads to pain) or headaches (which could be caused by furrowing the brow for too long).
More extreme manifestations are OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), various phobias and facial tics.
Anxiety takes many forms and parents should be on the lookout for changes in behaviour, and seek help if they have concerns.
What can Anxiety-sufferers and their parents do to help?
The overriding message from the young people in the film is that parents must listen, and not rush to judgement. They must ask open questions rather than ‘interrogate’, but also talk more about their own feelings of anxiety, what the triggers are and how they deal with anxiety when they experience it.
Parents are also asked to be more aware of the anxieties that they themselves bring to their parenting. One of the experts in the film talked about treating young people with anxiety; she said that, when she asks the young person which of their parents also exhibits anxiety, they can always point to one or both of their parents, often to their parents’ surprise!
There is also a call to parents not to treat ‘disorders above the neck differently to disorders below the neck’ – ie take mental disorders as seriously as physical ailments. However, parents must also be careful not to rush in to ‘save’ their children, effectively ‘aiding and abetting’, by helping them to avoid situations which cause anxiety. Instead parents should help their children to implement coping mechanisms which will help them to face the ‘scary’ situation.
Some of the coping mechanisms mentioned in the film are:
- Breathing techniques.
- Taking time out to sit in a quiet space, or listen to calming music, etc.
- Mental imaging, where the mind is taken to somewhere where one feels safe or special.
- Distractions which ‘give the amygdala a break’ – eg focus on quietness in the room; click fingers back and forth; hold ice in each hand – all of these shift brain function out of the amygdala, thereby allowing reason to click in and anxiety to be defeated.
- Journalling or drawing what one is feeling.
- Exposure therapy, where one is exposed to the cause of anxiety.
- Finding someone to talk to. When emotions are unspoken they have power over us. By trying to put our anxieties into words, we use a different part of brain, thereby diminishing the anxiety. Michael Phelps talks, in the film, about how he tried to bury his anxieties so that he didn’t have to deal with them. He ended up with crippling depression, at the height of his success, and only then did he start to talk about what he was feeling. That was his tipping point; the point from which life became much better. As he puts it – ‘I realised that it was ok not to feel ok’.
By paying attention to anxiety, and encouraging young people to ask for help, there is every opportunity to intervene, and to help them to develop coping mechanisms. The overriding message is that we can all rewire our brains to go to positivity rather than fear when difficult situations arise; and they will arise, throughout life.
Catherine Hatt – primary and secondary school psychologist.
– Email: Catherine.firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Tel: 022-960-9126.
The school psychologists offer support and counselling for students and their parents who face academic and socioemotional challenges.
Catherine also recommends this website – Teenmentalhealth.org.
By Olive Fenton