Don’t worry about it. This is one of my favorite things to tell students and parents. I do realize that although it sounds simple, it is a loaded statement. The New York Times Magazine’s cover article this week was entitled “The Kids Who Can’t: Why are more American teenagers than ever are suffering from severe anxiety?” As a student at Ridge High School (many years ago), I remember saying to my parents, “I’m so stressed out.” I don’t think that sentence was part of their vernacular, yet nowadays, I hear it nearly every day in working with high school students. It’s actually healthier for students to say this than for them to bottle up the anxiety. The NY Times article profiles a couple of students in high school, then follows one teen to college. Some of these children were suicidal. Some of them suffer from other anxiety disorders in conjunction with generalized anxiety: OCD, PTSD, debilitating social anxiety. This makes you wish that a simple statement could help, but it’s not that simple.
There is a genetic tendency towards anxiety, with parents who have suffered from it having kids diagnosed at higher rates than those who haven’t experienced it. Sometimes parents can unintentionally cause more stress by getting too involved. But even in ideal situations–without the genetic predisposition or helicopter parents–more and more teenagers and college students are suffering from anxiety. Why?
Social media can be blamed, as can that little devil–the cell phone–which may, at times, be an angel, too. Certain phone apps can help students engage in mindfulness activities, but this tends not to be what phones are used for. In this Tweeting, Instagramming, Snapchatting world, kids compare their lives to others’ filtered and curated and seemingly perfect lives. However, this is not reality. And there is where the anxiety can start. Even if students are not being bullied on social media, they can feel inadequate when they see what their peers are posting. Are these thoughts rational? No. Real? Very much so.
One of the students profiled in the NY Times article, Jake, had his phone taken away from him several hours each night so he would not aimlessly peruse social media and cause himself more stress. Jake’s anxiety and perfectionism were acute, and he was hospitalized and eventually landed at Mountain Valley, a therapeutic boarding school. The school advocates “exposure therapy” where students face their fears head on. Scared to talk to someone new? Great, your task is to go strike up a conversation with that stranger sitting on a bench. The philosophy of exposure therapy is that when faced with a worst-case scenario, students will discover that it’s not so bad. Jake’s story seems to have a happy ending; after significant therapy and other interventions, he is flourishing at his first-choice college. But this is not always the case.
The sad truth is that sometimes the anxiety is too overwhelming to bear. Kids stay at home in their covers curled up in the fetal position, rather than attending school. They avoid Homecoming or prom or just going out with friends. They go away to college only to return a few months later, incapable of dealing with failure. Jake tells a great story: at his college, he thought he submitted an assignment to a professor, but a few days later, realized that the paper didn’t make it to his professor’s email. And he began to freak out. But then, employing some of the coping techniques he must have picked up through his journey, he emailed his professor who said it was no big deal. And often, the things we are anxious about are just that: no big deal.
At Ivy Ed, we are partnering with local therapists to conduct mindfulness training and stress reduction. Our main goal is to reduce anxiety in the college admissions process. We realize that it’s not so simple, and that’s why we are taking steps to help students develop the resilience they will need in high school, college, and beyond.
Here are some additional resources from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America to help parents and students:
https://adaa.org/finding-help/treatment/therapy (Gives an overview of therapy options)
https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/webinars (Provides a list of free webinars for the public on an array of issues)
(Infographic with the types of questions you should ask when interviewing a therapist)