Last week I attended a lecture on adolescent health and the psychological challenges affecting young people. The talk touched on a variety of subject areas such as the value of adolescent friendships, exam stress, the impact of social media and the omnipresent threat of terrorism and its impact.
The common thread throughout, however, was anxiety and how all of these factors can contribute to create levels of anxiety within our children which could become unhealthy and result in long term problems.
Research has shown that in recent years there has been a staggering 50% increase in anxiety being reported among young people, with 10% presenting with a mental health problem as an adult. So what is anxiety? On a simple level it is a sense of apprehension or nervousness about something that is going to happen, however, it can manifest itself into something more serious and have a detrimental impact on daily life.
Anxiety and stress are closely interlinked, yet stress is a flippant term that we all bandy around on a daily basis. Reflecting on our own family weekend, “I am feeling stressed” was a phrase that regularly cropped up, whether in relation to preparing a meal on time, fixing the computer or revising for an exam. These are all trivial occurrences yet none of us thought twice about proclaiming how “stressed out” we were.
The key difference between anxiety and stress, however, is when the “stressed out” feeling becomes overwhelming. Having butterflies in your stomach is a normal sign of nerves, but sleepless nights, feeling or being sick, breathlessness and heart palpitations are all indicators that it is developing into something far more.
I fell victim to anxiety attacks several years ago. They appeared from nowhere like an unannounced visitor and consumed my daily life for more than a year. My first experience was on a solo shopping trip. One minute I was discussing the thread count of sheets with a shop assistant, the next my heart started to race, my palms became clammy, I felt faint and couldn’t breathe properly. The rational part of my brain was attempting to impose calm, whilst simultaneously the vulnerable, human part of me was appealing to a complete stranger for help.
There started a pattern of almost daily attacks that I had absolutely no control over. I started to recognise the signs and would attempt to take myself off somewhere secluded until the rising panic had passed but despite my best efforts, it was not always possible. These attacks didn’t need an invitation or it would seem, a reason. My husband was compelled to return from a business trip abroad on several occasions at the bequest of my GP. My friends had to step in and regularly collect my children from school as I couldn’t guarantee that I could manage the 10 minute walk to the school without being overwhelmed on the street. A family holiday to Greece in the summer was blighted by constant and increasingly inexplicable attacks. My children, then only 10 and 6 were attentive and caring, my husband less so. Constant pleas to pull myself together fell on deaf ears as I struggled with the battle between my mind and my body.
I tried to rationalise it every day. My GP suggested I was stressed and needed to rest. I had held down a busy and demanding job for many years, dealing with stressful scenarios on a daily basis; I had experienced a difficult divorce from my first husband; I had been a single working mum. How on earth could I be stressed now? I was at home, not working, just looking after my children. My eldest was about to take his school entrance exams, my husband was travelling on a weekly basis. Rest was not an option.
Thus, with no respite from the attacks and all our lives being sabotaged by this demon on a frequent basis I sought help elsewhere. I found a therapist, something which contravened everything I had ever believed in, namely that therapy was for weak people. I had a big support network of friends and family, why did I need a therapist? I was stronger than that. But it would seem I wasn’t. He introduced me to the theory of “fight or flight”, he explained that these anxiety attacks could be a delayed reaction to a build up of stress. It didn’t need to be due to something that was happening right now, although my current scenario could be the trigger and this was my body’s prolonged cry for help. For the first time in months, somebody made me feel like I was normal again and that I could conquer this with the right help. I began a pro-longed course of CBT.
For the first time in my life I bought a self- help book. I read it from cover to cover, devouring every case study, examining all the scenarios for clues that I could identify with, but most importantly looking for more answers. Nutrition and exercise popped up frequently alongside the suggestions for continued therapy and so I sought out a local Pilates teacher as well as a nutritionist and slowly but surely, started to build my damaged body as well as my mind. The Pilates taught me how to breathe properly again and to centre on me. By building my bodily strength and learning to focus on my breath in moments of anxiety I started to feel stronger again. The nutritionist overhauled my diet. Out went coffee, alcohol, sugar anything that was going to increase the stress load on my body. For three months my body was my temple as I went back to basics. I had never been overweight but I was guilty of drinking a lot of caffeine, not eating properly in the middle of the day and then snacking on high sugar foods to get me through to dinner and the wine was just an unnecessary distraction. I was recommended a variety of vitamins to help combat stress, namely as many B vitamins as my body could consume.
So the lecture reminded me of this period in my life, now (touch wood) a distant but very real memory. I don’t know if any or all of the above courses of action were responsible for returning me to normality but they certainly enabled me to seize control again. That feeling of being out of control is one of the worst things I have ever experienced. Thus, I imagined being a child experiencing what I had experienced, that overwhelming, all consuming sense of a loss of yourself as you have previously known it and tried to think how scared a child would be, as I was. It is widely thought that an anxious parent will make an anxious child. Perhaps not surprisingly this week I have reflected on my own children’s current state of anxiety. Teenager No.1 is facing his A levels and proclaims his anxiety on a daily basis. Have I been too flippant in dismissing his anxiety as just exam stress? Teenager No.2 has in the past had her own friendship issues to deal with which due to their timing just before a music exam have resulted in her feeling anxious before any exam she sits now. These are all common scenarios which could nevertheless make an adolescent emotionally vulnerable.
The importance of the role of us as the parent in monitoring and helping our children to manage their stress/anxiety cannot be underestimated. Even if we can associate with their anxiety, it is vital to keep it in check and handle their anxiety calmly. Managing anxiety is as I found out to my detriment is a life skill and it would seem if the statistics are correct, this is a valuable lesson for us to pass on to our children.
So on a practical level what can we do? Apart from making sure they eat well, exercise regularly and get plenty of quality sleep, the most obvious one apparently is to make sure we are always there for them, to listen to them and not to dismiss their concerns. Of course, they may seem irrational to us, but to them they are real so we need to make sure we take them seriously. Telling them to just get on with it is not helpful. If it is something which we can identify with, maybe because we had a similar experience when we were their age, tell them so that we can help them to recognise what they are experiencing is perfectly normal. Don’t coddle them too much, be compassionate but firm. In other words, sympathise but encourage them to recognise what they are feeling for what it is and to face it head on and deal with it and help them come up with a solution or a coping mechanism. Most importantly though we must be ready to step in if we feel things are getting out of control. This is difficult with teenagers in particular as they are always pushing us away in a bid to take control of their lives and thereby assert their independence.
I have found you never stop learning as a parent and I came away from the lecture, contemplative. Yes a lot of these things may seem like common sense but sometimes it is always valuable to step back and re-evaluate what is going on around you, how you react and to redress the balance where necessary.
So in answer to the question, “Am I to blame for their anxiety?”. I hope not. In experiencing anxiety attacks myself have I become more anxious as an individual? More cautious and more wary maybe but hopefully not to the detriment of my children developing their own sense of identity. The anxieties they are experiencing now are normal worries for children of their age. The concern would be if these went unchecked. I take faith from the fact that they offload their stresses on me and tell me how they feel, but now that I have been introduced to the fact that what I experienced is affecting young people everywhere and can arise from the simplest of scenarios, where my own teenagers are concerned I will be more alert to any changes and approach my role with a fresh perspective.