Teens in the United States are struggling with anxiety in record numbers, and students in our classrooms are stressed out, overstimulated, and distressed. What’s causing this abrupt shift, and how can we help? Let’s take a look.
Most of us feel some anxiety from time to time, which is easily connected to situational causes. However, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). People struggling with anxiety may overly fret about life issues, school, work, money, or family, finding themselves trapped in a spiral of intense mental anguish.
Anxiety disorders often manifest in physical ways as well. Sufferers may experience an elevated heart rate, difficulty sleeping, stomach problems, shaking, sweating, and difficulty concentrating, among other symptoms. GAD affects nearly 7 million adults in our country alone, and it is most prevalent among women. In some cases, generalized anxiety disorder can extend into panic attacks or social anxiety disorder.
Social anxiety, common in teens, is a bit different than GAD. A person with social anxiety disorder tends to be struggling with anxiety or fear in certain or all social situations, such as meeting new people, dating, job interviews, answering questions in class, or having to talk to a cashier in a store. Doing everyday things in front of people—such as eating or drinking in front of others or using a public restroom—also causes anxiety or fear for those with a social anxiety disorder.
During adolescence, a certain level of social anxiety can be chalked up to puberty. But in cases of a more serious social anxiety disorder, a person can feel sick to their stomach, sweat, shake, or find themselves unable to speak. They may completely shun social situations — sometimes not leaving the house at all.
Teen anxiety is more than a trending topic or a startling headline, however. There are some highly concerning stats that accompany the sharp rise in cases of documented teen anxiety in the United States. In 2017, the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment II found that nearly 61% of college students felt overwhelming anxiety, a sharp increase from 50% in 2011. The number of children and adolescents admitted to hospitals due to self harm or suicidal ideation more than doubled during the last decade, according to research presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting. In 2015, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that 30% of girls and 20% of boys – 6.3 million teenagers total– were struggling with anxiety. It’s also fair to say that these numbers aren’t painting the full picture, given how many people don’t share their mental health struggles.
Paula Politte, M.S.S., Assistant Professor at Concordia University-Portland’s College of Education, believes that “teen anxiety is so prevalent because we (society) are not teaching them skills for communicating their needs, or for coping with the stress of being a teenager.”
Psychologist and author of Mommy Burnout, Dr. Sheryl Ziegler, looks to a rapidly changing world for answers. “I think that social media and technology, in general, are causing the significant rise in teen anxiety that our country is seeing. FOMO (fear of missing out), less face-to-face connection, pressures, bullying, news, violence, politics — it is all in the palm of a teen’s hand on a daily basis for hours.”
The number of teens who have smartphones or have access to them shot up from 37% in 2013 to 73% in 2015 to 89% at the end of 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. A study by the University of Michigan, which referenced a large-sample survey of middle and high school students, found a correlation between smartphone usage and reported self-satisfaction. The increase in cell phone ownership among adolescents led to decreased self-esteem, life satisfaction, and overall happiness.
Beyond phones, life moves a bit faster these days. Dr. Marian Camden, psychologist and author of Going Back and Forth: A Joint Custody Story, says that “for teens, life is more complicated than ever before. The pressures of school, extracurricular activities, socializing, work, and preparing for college and the work world are intense.” She also notes that teens lack precious downtime and quiet reflection today, living amongst a barrage of stimulation. “The brain and nervous system need downtime in order to switch into the parasympathetic mode. When we are active, our neurons are working hard. But when we are resting, that’s the time our marvelous glial cells get busy healing and growing. Those glial cells help us put our lives in order. They give us a sense of identity and our place in the grand scheme. Teens need time just to sit and stare! Let’s give them a break,” she says.
So what can we do? When dealing with students who are struggling with anxiety, Dr. Ziegler recommends taking them aside to let them know that you are noticing some distress and are there to help. “I have found in my private practice that the kids I work with who do better in school have teachers who make subtle accommodations for them such as sending home the assignments or homework in writing or in an email or posted online somewhere so that they don’t stress about missing what to do,” she says. “Also, providing additional time for tests or not having timed tests helps. Lastly, if a teacher notices that the student with anxiety is sitting next to someone who distracts them, moving them is helpful.” Dr. Ziegler urges teachers to view anxiety, which is often coupled with depression, as one would dyslexia or ADHD, making the necessary classroom accommodations for students to best learn and thrive.
As Dr. Camden noted, students need some downtime in order to give their minds a much-needed rest. Providing quiet reflection time in the classroom, device-free time, and/or meditation periods can go a long way toward healing an anxious mind. The classroom can function as a safe place for students to talk, find community, and learn life skills that will better prepare them for coping in a busy world. Says social worker and therapist Mary Dowling, “Everyone deserves to find a safe space to explore and articulate their thoughts and feelings, especially teenagers.”
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