June 13

Dealing with anxiety

The number of young people reporting anxiety has rocketed and is under the spotlight now in the midst of exam season.

A few statistics that help us to focus:

  • 8-11% of children and adolescents have anxiety that affects their ability to get on with their lives.
  • 14 is the age by which more than half of mental health issues have started. Three quarters begin by 18.
  • The increase in the rate of depression and anxiety among teenagers has increased by 70% in the last 25 years, Childline has seen a 68% increase in counselling sessions for 16-18 year olds about exam results since 2014.
  • Women are twice as men likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders.

Anxiety UK points out that anxiety can be understood as a tightness or fear; it is (for most people) a normal part of life and will come and go, but for increasing numbers of teenage girls it is becoming something they are living with. The symptoms can be both physical and emotional, and according to many studies, the UK is experiencing an epidemic. Projections suggest that by 2026, anxiety disorders will set the UK economy back by £14.2bn a year. Anxiety UK makes the case that if day-to-day functioning is impaired, then help should be sought. School referrals to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) across the UK have risen by a third so it is imperative that we, as parents and teachers, take anxiety seriously. 

What can we do to stop anxious thoughts taking over and spiralling into an anxiety disorder? The first thing is to take phones away. Social media can be an amazing force for good but if you are having negative thoughts about yourself, you can’t escape them if you are constantly checking your phone for ‘likes’. High screen time and poor self-esteem are very closely related. No parent wants to be the 'bad cop' but it is so important to be involved in your daughter’s online life – and even more important to limit her online life. Exam time has always been a very stressful time, but it is even more so now. We are much more aspirational for our children’s futures – and our children are like sponges, soaking up our hopes for them. Living up to our aspirations is an increasing pressure as the immediacy of information – and the overload of information – makes the world a much more uncertain place than it used to be. 

‘Sleep is the best meditation’ as the Dalai Lama said, and the Mental Health Foundation is arguing that, as a nation that is sleep deprived, we must put good sleep at the top of the public health agenda. Teenagers need to sleep and they need a lot of sleep. Don’t let them have their phones in the bedroom – dare I suggest a family policy of leaving phones in the kitchen! When girls sleep well, they have a better sense of perspective, which enables them to deal with anxious thoughts.

Finally, exercise is also one of the most effective ways to improve mental health and anxiety. Regular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on depression, anxiety, ADHD, and more. It also relieves stress, improves memory, helps you sleep better, and boosts overall mood. Studies show that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication - but without the side-effects, of course. In addition to relieving depression symptoms, research also shows that maintaining an exercise schedule can prevent you from relapsing. Exercise is a powerful depression fighter for several reasons. Most importantly, it promotes all kinds of changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being. It also releases endorphins, powerful chemicals in your brain that energize your spirits and make you feel good. Finally, exercise can also serve as a distraction, allowing you to find some quiet time to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression.

The most important thing we can do as parents and teachers, however, is to listen – and really listen.

Also In the News