Tackling anxiety among young people

Millie Stockwell

Millie Stockwell is a project support officer at The Training Effect. She supports the delivery of The Training Effect’s Head-First emotional health and wellbeing programme, which is being rolled out to Primary and Secondary school pupils in the London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark. For more information on Head-First visit: www.head-first.org.uk.

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Image credit: Pexels // Pham Khoai Image credit: Pexels // Pham Khoai

Anxiety is a natural, normal feeling that everyone experiences from time to time – but it can become a problem if it is persistent and restricts one’s ability to function effectively in everyday life.

We are currently seeing more cases of anxiety being reported than ever before. There are competing theories and rationale for this increase; many health professionals have blamed the ‘fear culture’ of today’s politics and news, which can worsen a feeling of helplessness and anxiety among many exposed to the media.

In October 2016, Childline reported a significant 35% increase in counselling sessions for anxiety among young people. They also reported that girls are seven times more likely to contact them in relation to anxiety than boys.

Although many have personal issues, Childline has suggested that the rise is also due to political anxiety. The rise in anxiety among children and young people has been largely due to fears of world affairs occurring over 2016 such as the EU referendum, US election and Syria conflict.

This, coupled with access to a 24/7 connected world may mean that children and young people are more likely to be exposed to an influx of information, often negative, leading to more children and young people feeling overwhelmed and helpless.

What causes anxiety?

Anxiety is triggered by one of our key survival instincts: fight or flight. This survival mechanism allows our body to prepare us to either fight a perceived threat, or run from it. It does this by producing chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream.

This has a number of effects: it quickens our breath, directs “Children are more likely to be exposed to an influx of negative information.”blood away from our digestive tract and towards our muscles and limbs (to give us energy to either run or fight), heightens our sense of awareness and prepares our body – psychologically and physically – to survive.

There are numerous complex reasons why a person may experience or develop anxiety or an anxiety disorder. However, several factors that may increase the likelihood of developing anxiety or an anxiety disorder have been identified. These include:

  • Upbringing – for example, over-protective parents who emphasise the danger of other people or the outdoors.
  • Socioeconomic factors – anxiety may be more common for children and young people exposed to poverty and low socioeconomic status.
  • Genetics – it has been suggested that those with a family history of anxiety have higher chances of developing it.
  • Substance misuse.
  • Trauma – for example, abusive relationships or death of a loved one.
  • Mental or physical abuse from close friends or family.
  • Stress from work or school.
  • Medical illnesses – whether that’s worry for the health of others or your own.

Anxiety disorders occur in 2.2% of five to 10 year olds (with the average age of onset being seven years old), and 4.4% of 11-16 year olds. Prevalence is higher in girls and young women. Students are at a high risk of anxiety, with 78% of students experiencing mental health issues in 2015, according to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Students.

Many teachers probably won’t be surprised to discover that in a recent survey conducted by The Association of School and College Leavers, 55% of schools reported an increase of stress and anxiety among their pupils.

How does anxiety affect children and young people at school?

Whilst schools have an important role in supporting children and young people experiencing anxiety, the school environment and inherent pressure can negatively impact on children and young people.

For example, children are often under pressure not only academically, but also socially in terms of conforming to rules, norms and standards expected of them by teachers and peers. Exam stress is a significant trigger for anxiety and stress – the same study conducted by The Association of School Leavers reported a 90% increase in students reporting feelings of anxiety or stress.

Less outgoing or anxious students may enjoy reading time, as opposed to taking part in group activities, and may feel nervous or threatened by other loud or boisterous students. Alternatively, sometimes the fear of being rejected by peers is enough to cause anxiety, and this pressure to become ‘accepted’ within their peer settings can sometimes negatively impact behaviour, ultimately distracting children and young people from their learning.

Anxiety can have an impact on a student’s learning by altering their:

  • Attention span.
  • Interpretation of information.
  • Concentration levels (their ability to be ‘in the moment’ and not worry about other things).
  • Memory.
  • Social interaction.
  • Belief and / or expectations.
  • Health.

As their worry of other (real or potential) events increases, a young person’s ability to focus on the task at hand wanes, and their ability to solve problems effectively decreases. Anxiety is also associated with a decrease in short-term memory capacity as well as general memory deficits.

The social and behavioural learning aspect of school, coupled with the pressure that students may be either putting onto themselves or be “Anxious pupils will focus on potential threats at the expense of social cues.”subject to by their parents or teachers to perform well academically, can be too much for some to manage.

Anxious children will not be able to relax in social situations, and will focus on potential threats at the expense of social cues, therefore coming across as less socially competent. Other children and peers can pick up these traits and behaviours in anxious students and start stereotyping or bullying.

Highly anxious children and young people are 10 times more likely to be in the bottom third of the class by Year 5. Anxious students are also less likely to engage in class, and so miss out on the benefits of learning essential interpersonal communication skills and interactive learning experiences (Source: The Impact of Anxiety on Student Performance? Dr Heidi Lyneham, Copyright 2009, Centre for Emotional Health, Macquarie University).

Common symptoms of anxiety at school include:

  • Constantly seeking reassurance.
  • Overly well behaved, sometimes bossy.
  • Any mistakes, changes to routine or new situations cause distress.
  • Physical symptoms, i.e. going home with stomach-aches or headaches a lot.
  • Worries that fluctuate depending on the day of the week or time of the day.
  • Perfectionist attitude.
  • Procrastination.

Schools that do not focus on the health and wellbeing of their students can expect a higher number of anxious or depressed students, bringing with them learning, behavioural and emotional problems.

How can we support children and young people experiencing anxiety and anxiety disorders?

Supporting children and young people with their mental health and anxiety disorders should be a key consideration of all schools. It is clear that anxiety is an issue which is continuing to increase year on year, and its impact of learning has been clearly documented.

So what can schools do to support pupils? Here are five key tips to support children and young people with anxiety:

1. Good quality PSHE which can help students identify and manage their own emotions is essential to helping manage their anxiety and overall well-being.

2. Support students to face their fears. Gently encouraging (not forcing) children and young people to face their fears and anxieties in a safe environment can help them to overcome them. Whilst avoiding fears may help a child’s anxiety in the short-term, in the long-term it reinforces the anxiety or phobia. Fears exist as long as we do not confront them.

3. Slowly building their confidence by teaching them skills in ways to handle tasks, feelings or experiences can also have a positive impact.

4. Providing a safe and confidential outlet to talk about their anxieties is also proven to help. Be sure not to empower their feelings of anxiety, just respect them and emphasise that the goal is to manage anxiety, not eliminate it.

5. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can also be recommended in more severe cases.

What are anxiety disorders?

There is no one ‘tell-tale’ sign of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are usually comorbid conditions, so usually exist hand-in-hand with depression, mood disorders, substance abuse, and commonly occur in children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD).

There are a variety of anxiety disorders, and each individual will experience their anxiety differently.

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is excessive anxiety of many different aspects of a person’s life. It is often called ‘chronic worrying’, and some people have described it as like the Whac-A-Mole arcade game ­– as soon as they resolve one worry, another pops up.

Panic Disorder is another type of anxiety disorder where the individual will experience panic attacks regularly and with no warning, for no apparent reason, and can have an extreme impact on a person’s socialisation and self-esteem.

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), or Social Phobia is a ‘persistent and overwhelming fear of social situations.’ Technically classed as a complex phobia, it tends to have more impact on an individual’s day-to-day life than other phobias. A child with social anxiety may cry more than usual, and fear going to school or become anxious at the idea of being asked to become involved in activities with other children. Teens with social anxiety, often with more independence, can dread activities such as speaking on the phone or going to work, eating with company, shopping or talking in groups.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a type of anxiety disorder. There are two main aspects of this anxiety – obsessions, and compulsions. Obsessions are unwelcome thoughts, worries, and images that can make an individual feel very anxious. Compulsions are the physical repetitive activities an individual does to reduce the anxiety caused by the obsession, such as excessive double checking of things, tapping or repeating certain words, spending a lot of time cleaning, and constantly checking with loved ones to make sure they’re safe.

How do you combat anxiety in your school? Let us know below.

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