Students and Anxiety

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teens anxiety

Students have returned to school, for many a return marked by disruption to classes due to Omicron. For many more, the usual anxiety associated with returning to school has been exacerbated by anxiety around Omicron.

We are not designed to live in states of prolonged anxiety. Anxiety is the body’s way of assisting us in dealing with an immediate crisis. When the perceived crisis becomes ongoing, the anxiety can become entrenched and result in physical and/or mental health symptoms that are not helpful.

For example, stomach cramps, reducing our food intake, headaches and migraines can be some of the physical responses to anxiety. Mentally, anxiety and uncertainty can tip into depression as we feel helpless to manage the situation we face. Socially we can withdraw and become more isolated.

Given the beginning of this school year is the third year of dealing with COVID and the added anxiety many are feeling, how can we assist young people in managing their stress?

Be Aware of the signs and symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety is a normal part of life we often must deal with. The issue is not anxiety; it is the intensity, duration, and resulting impact of anxiety on a young person’s life.

One reason anxiety has such an impact is the length of time we have been dealing with COVID as a community. As mentioned above, we are entering the third year of dealing with it.

The intensity of anxiety is linked to our sense of control. The more in control of a situation, the less intense our reaction will be because we believe we can deal with it. When we feel or think we have less control over a situation, our anxiety is increased.

Because COVID has been so unpredictable, people feel more anxiety because they feel they have less control.

Generally, the longer the duration and the less control, the more significant the impact on a young person. There are exceptions to this pattern; for example, a person has life-threatening situations such as sexual assault or a physical assault.

Signs To Watch Out For

Some of the common signs associated with anxiety include:

·         Racing mind and difficulty concentrating.

·         Have difficulty getting to sleep and always seem tired.

·         On edge and nervous.

·         Socially isolating themselves.

These mental signs can translate into physical signs such as:

·         Shortness of breath and hyperventilating.

·         Restless and physically shaking.

·         Dry mouth, loss of appetite and stomach pains.

What Can We do?

As parents, carers, and responsible adults, there are simple things we can do to assist our young people in managing their anxiety.

Create a safe, relaxing environment

Children and young people often absorb the tension and anxiety around them. When we are anxious as parents, it is not uncommon for our children to absorb and react to our anxiety.

As children absorb the anxiety around them, they try to make sense of it, and because they have no context, they think the anxiety is because of something they have done.

As parents, it is essential to manage our anxiety to give a context for our children to understand what is happening.

Listen to and acknowledge how your child or teenager is feeling.

In the pressure of life, it is easy to ignore or brush aside the reality of what our children feel.

As fathers, it is easy to have two standards towards our children and teenagers. When daughters’ express anxiety, often fathers will be supportive, whereas when sons’ express anxiety or fear, fathers can discount it and tell or expect their sons to ‘toughen up’.

Anxiety for boys and young men is as real and valid as it is for girls. If we place unhealthy models of brittle masculinity on boys, we risk increasing the intensity and duration of the anxiety and hence the long-term impacts. Boys who experience anxiety also need safe spaces to express and talk about their anxiety.

Steps to assist children feel in control

As mentioned, the intensity of anxiety is often linked to our sense of control. When we feel out of control, we will experience anxiety more intensely.

When listening to and talking about anxiety with our children, it is important to ask them what they would find helpful to feel more in control?

Initially, our children may not think of anything. When this happens, try not to rush in and come up with your suggestions for what you think would be helpful. Give your child time to think and come up with their suggestions.

It can be helpful to remind them of previous situations where you have seen them manage anxiety. Often when we are faced with new anxieties, we feel like we are facing a completely new situation. While the circumstances may be unique, our children have previously faced anxiety and anxious situations. It is about reminding them of those times and what worked well so they can come up and develop their strategies to deal with the current situation.

Remember, when the signs of anxiety are not reducing or your child is withdrawing and becoming unwell, seek professional assistance.

  – Written by David Kernohan, Director of Youth Legal Services

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