All about Anxiety

As a high school counselor I am very in tune with the problems and issues teens face on a daily basis.  Social media, bullying, drugs and alcohol, and diet are all hot topics in schools around the country.  Another issue, anxiety, is one I have seen escalate over the years.  Anxiety is the most common problem reported by children of all ages.  So many of our kids are feeling anxiety for a variety of reasons, and treatment for this disorder, whether medication or coping skills, is also on the rise.

This week our school hosted Dr. Whitney Wheeler from the Anxiety Treatment Center of Austin to speak to our parents about anxiety.  Specifically, Dr. Wheeler addressed the causes of anxiety and offered techniques for parents to help their students who struggle with it.  It was a great presentation, and below are some of the highlights.

1.  Anxiety is common and normal

The word “anxiety” alone is enough to cause some of anxiety!  But it’s totally normal to feel some level of anxiety, and, in fact, it is a healthy part of life.  Anxiety is our evolutionary response to confronting our fears.  And confronting our fears is how we grow as people.  The important thing is to recognize when anxiety goes from healthy to problematic.

2.  Recognizing problematic anxiety

Often times, especially for children, healthy anxiety can become problematic.  The biggest question to ask yourself is:  Does my child’s anxiety interfere with his life in major ways (i.e., keeping him from participating in things he enjoys, preventing him from making friends, impacting academics)?  Dr. Wheeler encouraged parents to consider:

  • The severity of the anxiety (is it out of proportion to other kids)
  • Does the child adjust to the situation he is anxious about?
  • Is the anxiety related to something innocuous?

3.  What does anxiety in children look like?

There are three main signs of unhealthy anxiety:

  • Thoughts that center around some type of danger or threat
  • Physical symptoms, such as rapid heart rate or increased breathing
  • Behavior, such as fidgeting, pacing, crying, or shaking

4.  Intervention

Based on the three signs of unhealthy anxiety mentioned above, Dr. Wheeler outlined ways to treat them.

  • Thoughts: treatment helps students see connections between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  The goal is for children to understand it is o.k. to to feel uncertain and uncomfortable and create steps to facing their fears.
  • Physical symptoms: relaxation techniques!  I love these, and we teach them to our students at my high school.  They include breathing, mindfulness, visualization, and prayer.  This is something we can all incorporate into our lives on a daily basis.
  • Behavior: Wheeler introduced the fear step ladder.  This technique requires the child to write down a list of his fears, with the least anxiety-inducing first.  Then the child takes an action towards the first fear before moving on to the next one.  At each step the child assesses his thoughts and feelings, while the parent offers encouragement.

Anxiety is not a fun issue to face, especially for children who are still developing coping strategies.  It’s important that we, as adults, are mindful of how anxiety may be affecting our kids.  If you suspect your child is struggling with an unhealthy amount of anxiety, I encourage you to reach out to Dr. Wheeler and the Anxiety Treatment Center of Austin.

Thank you Dr. Wheeler for your valuable insight!