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How to help young people with anxiety

What is anxiety and how might it affect young people? This article takes an in-depth look at ways to help reduce anxiety across age groups.
Young girl sits with head on her knees

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural bodily reaction to stressful situations that the individual perceives as challenging or threatening. Anxiety can be described as a feeling of unease, fear or worry that can be mild or severe.

A young person may be anxious about:

  • their health and the health of family members and close friends
  • their level of control and uncertainty surrounding their future and the world
  • changes and disruptions to their usual routines
  • family dynamics.

How to help

Emphasise that all individuals experience everyday anxiety. Explain that anxiety is, in fact, a function of alertness that helps people to anticipate and react to danger, keeping people safe. Some light disclosure of your own experience of anxiety can alleviate any shame the young person may be experiencing regarding their anxiety.

When anxiety persists and affects an individual’s ability to function in their day-to-day lives, they may benefit from seeking further support.

Do they know what stress looks like within themselves?

Ask the young person to describe their physical, psychological and interpersonal reactions to stressful situations. This will enable the young person to identify factors that cause them stress and the effect it has on their body, such as:

  • Physical signs of stress: these might include tension in the body (tension in shoulders, neck and jaw, sweaty palms, dry mouth, fidgeting and hyperventilating).
  • Psychological signs of stress: these could include the feeling of unease, fear or worry (irritability, feeling of dread, difficulty concentrating, fear that others can perceive their anxiety).
  • Interpersonal signs of stress: the need for isolation, withdrawal or reassurance are common signs of stress.
  • Rumination and dissociation: These are also signs of anxiety.
    Rumination refers to the tendency to fixate on a particularly anxiety-provoking idea, for instance, a young person may ruminate about how a change in the weather would negatively impact the day’s activities.

    Dissociation refers to the tendency to create a psychological distance between the self and world/reality (derealisation) and also refers to the experience of a separation between the self and the body (depersonalisation). An example of derealisation would be the feeling that your life is not real, rather it is a tragic play or dream. An individual may feel emotionally distanced from individuals who they care about. Those experiencing depersonalisation may also comment about feeling out of control, puppet-like as if their actions and words are not their own.

Triggers

When discussing sensitive topics that may trigger the anxieties of a young person, it is important to be aware of how both you and they are communicating non-verbally. Is your body language saying, ‘I care and I am listening,’ or is it saying something else? Equally, are they searching for eye contact or do they show discomfort when your eyes meet theirs?

Take note of these behaviours, as they can contribute to the direction and flow of the conversation. With discretion, refer to these behavioural changes – this will draw the young person’s awareness to themselves, heightening their self-awareness and ability to identify the anxiety they are feeling.

For instance, if a young person begins to tap their foot and clenches their fists when the adult brings up the young person’s boyfriend/girlfriend, try making a light reference to this behaviour, for example:

“I noticed when I asked about your boyfriend, you began to tap your foot and clenched your jaw. Did you sense that?’
You can follow this with a few well-placed questions to open up a dialogue. At times mentioning your own experience that you think mirrors the young person’s may also be effective in assisting the young person to open up about their anxiety:
“What happens inside you as you think about that/then?”
“How does that make you feel?”
“After you mentioned XXX, I felt a heaviness in my chest. I wonder if you feel the same?

PEP POINTS TASK suggestions

The suggestions below have been found to reduce anxiety across age groups, also the majority of these activities are easily accessible and achievable.
  • Mindfulness and meditation practice through applications such as Calm and Headspace.
    Mindfulness is a powerful method of reducing anxiety and refocusing ourselves on the here and now. Anxieties are often linked to the concerns of the past and the ambiguity linked to future events and interactions. leading to the physical reactions referred above, such as heavy breathing and agitation, therefore providing the young person a method that is centred around controlled breathing in the here and now will be an effective strategy that young people can employ when anxious.
  • Practising yoga has been found to reduce anxiety, as it is another mindful activity that draws the individual’s awareness to themselves in the here and now, providing a sense of calm and relaxation. There are various YouTube channels dedicated to supporting individuals of all levels to begin yoga.
  • Daily reflections, journaling and open letters to self. These are great methods young people can use to decompress, and free up some mental space. Journalling provides space for the individual to articulate and evaluate their thoughts and emotions, strengthening their recall of information and can provide some clarity.
  • Exercise is a great way to alleviate anxiety as it reduces tension and stabilises mood. Research has also shown that exercise activates the frontal regions of the brain that are responsible for executive function. Executive function controls the amygdala, a region of the brain involved in the perception of real and imagined threats.
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Youth Mental Health: Supporting Young People Using a Trauma Informed Practice

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