In the last few years there seems to be an increasing number of kids who suffer from anxiety. I wanted to learn more about anxiety and how to help these kids. My journey began with a workshop with Dr. Michael Southam-Gerow, a professor in clinical psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, and reading his book about adolescence and anxiety. Recently, I had an opportunity to meet with Dr. Nancy Macconnachie, an expert on working with teens who are anxious. Dr. Macconnachie explained the biological basis of anxiety and her strategy for working with these adolescents.
According to Dr. Macconnachie, when information enters our brain it first goes to the limbic system, which is the emotion-regulating center. From there it moves to the prefrontal cortex, where we reason and problem-solve. If too much information enters at once, the emotion center becomes overwhelmed and the information is not sent to the thinking system. This is a biological description of anxiety. An anxious person is emotional and cannot reason through the situation. Once this happens, everything becomes a crisis because the student is overwhelmed by emotions. Dr. Macconnachie says we have to teach our students how to handle these emotional times in order to allow the thinking brain to do its job. She says we must “give students a bag of tricks.”
There are some fundamental tricks that all of us need. Number one, according to Dr. Macconnachie, is to get plenty of exercise or active play. Exercise increases the oxygen level in the bloodstream and relaxes tense muscles, both of which reduce adrenalin levels and allow us to function. The second “trick” is to develop a social network of support. Perhaps a parent or close friend can provide emotional support that helps get through the tough times. Other strategies include things like having a creative outlet such as art or music, caring for pets, participating in a spiritual activity like church, or doing community service. Every person’s “bag of tricks” is different. When Dr. Macconnachie works with adolescents, she has them begin to explore what relaxes them and helps them to get through the emotional crises and move to rational thinking and problem-solving.
Being an adolescent is difficult. Physical changes occur, and teens begin to seek independence from the adults around them. All adolescents are emotional because of these changes in their lives. It is important to develop healthy ways to handle the emotions such as exercise and spending quality time with friends and family. If your teen is experiencing anxiety, it is important to help them develop their personal “bag of tricks” to handle their emotions. Too much anxiety can lead to serious depression. If you feel your teen is overly stressed, seek the help of a professional who knows the best ways to help.