Natasha Devon’s top tips for teenagers with anxiety
Returning to school for the new year can often cause feelings of anxiety in teens, not to mention the unprecedented events of 2020. Here, mental health campaigner Natasha Devon shares her top tips for teenagers dealing with anxiety.
The year 2020 has been a challenging one for us all, including school children and teenagers who have had their school routine disrupted, their education paused and their exams cancelled. The start of a new school year is often enough to cause feelings of anxiety in teenagers, without the additional worries that coronavirus and the disruption it has caused may bring. Here, writer and mental health campaigner Natasha Devon shares her highly effective techniques to help teenagers cope with anxious thoughts.
Usually, whatever mishaps or misfortunes might befall you as a teenager, something similar or equivalent has happened before. There is a protocol. A blueprint. Depending on the nature of the situation, you might even be accused of being a cliché. But never in living memory have young people had to live through a global pandemic.
A pandemic in and of itself is enough. But when adults have no idea what’s going on or what we can do about it, when there’s not even the possibility of hearing them saying “this reminds me of something that happened to me when I was at school” (cue rolling your eyes), that’s a recipe for large-scale anxiety amongst the young.
Whilst we don’t have any data, all the national youth-facing mental health charities in the UK have reported a surge in demand for their services since March. Bereavement is, of course, a huge issue, as is trauma. But for those young people whom COVID has not touched directly, it’s anxiety that’s going to be the most formidable beast they wrestle with. Whether that’s anxiety about returning to school or college in September alongside the risk of a second wave, worries about catching up on work in time for exams next summer or generalised anxiety about finding themselves back amongst the hustle, bustle and noise of the ‘new normal’ after so long in smaller classes (in the case of the children of keyworkers) or at home.
In my (not inconsiderable) experience of anxiety, it’s more pedestrian worries which will be the hardest to overcome. When faced with a crisis or emergency, our brains go into ‘survival mode’, battling through the obstacles in front of us and revisiting the emotional consequences when things are safer or calmer. In the case of everyday stresses and worries, however, we tend to magnify them in our minds, imagining worst-case scenarios, panicking about things which haven’t happened yet, all the while berating ourselves for not being able to cope because there are people worse off than us.
Below are three, highly effective techniques I use in these situations:
1. Replace ‘what ifs’ with ‘right nows’
We have evolved to explore the worst outcomes in our imaginations because, in theory, that leaves us better prepared should they occur. It’s logical from a survival point of view, but it can mean we forget that the worst outcome is only one of a number of possibilities.
Whenever we find ourselves thinking or saying ‘what if’ followed by a catastrophic prospect, we should therefore make a conscious effort to replace it with a ‘right now.’ For example ‘right now, I am safe,’ ‘as of right now, no one I love has contracted COVID,’ ‘right now, I’m trying my hardest’ or ‘right now, everyone around me is doing their best to ensure I catch up on the work I’ve missed.’
This is a form of mindfulness which, if practised regularly, has been shown to enhance general wellbeing.
2. Air the worries
Worries can go round and round our minds like clothes in a tumble drier, to the point where it becomes exhausting and we start to annoy ourselves. One way to counteract this is by what Professor Steve Peters (author of The Chimp Paradox) calls ‘boxing the chimp.’ Imagine there is an angry chimp in your brain, flinging about anxieties indiscriminately to try and get your attention. The only way to contain or ‘box’ the chimp is to hear and consider what it’s trying to tell you.
Rather than trying to push uncomfortable, anxious thoughts away, write them down. Some of them will look ridiculous as soon as you commit them to paper. For other worries, noting them down is the first step towards giving yourself some clarity. Plus, anxieties tend to seem less overwhelming and more surmountable when broken into bite-sized chunks.
3. Now categorize them
All anxious thoughts can be broadly divided into three categories:
- Things you have direct control over (e.g. I have some homework to do and I’m procrastinating)
- Things which are changeable but require someone else’s help (e.g. I’ve missed a week of school off sick and need someone to help catch me up)
- Things you have no power whatsoever to influence (e.g. an increasingly unstable, megalomaniacal man-baby is leader of the free world)
You could take three highlighter pens and choose a different colour for each, or re-write your worries on three pieces of paper. Anything in the last category should be disregarded, for it is, in the immortal words of that Baz Luhrmann song “like trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.”
Bering anxious actually both requires and creates a lot of nervous energy, so channel that energy into tackling items in the first two categories.
Finally, remember that if you don’t feel at least a little anxious right now it means you probably aren’t paying attention. Feeling worried and stressed in response, not just to COVID, but also to the injustices highlighted by the Black Lives Matter protests, the A-Level results fiasco and the omnipresent spectre of Brexit is natural, normal and understandable. It doesn’t mean you’re mentally ill, simply that you are experiencing distress.
However well they might hide it, everyone in your school or college will be feeling much the same way. There is comfort, I find, in acknowledging that, however many waves of anxiety might be crashing over you, we’re all pretty much in the same boat.