Adolescent anxiety in an uncertain world

Uncertainty is a normal part of life. We face uncertainty to some degree every day. What is the weather going to do? Who is that message from? What score will I get in that test? Today was a day of uncertainty for America, as they wait out the results of the election. I thought it might be a good day to think about uncertainty for teens, how it can play into anxiety and some ideas to help.

If you are a teenager you are no stranger to uncertainty. We live in a fast-paced society where every minute there is a new social media post, a new news story, a new article that’s trending. It’s hard to keep up. And nothing feels certain in an ever-changing world.

Beyond the everyday, there have been some big events in the news recently. Climate change is one. Greta Thunberg has led a movement of teens in advocating for our planet and demanding that adults stop and make changes to the world that they are growing up in. It is fantastic to see the passion that many have about this issue. And to see the action that they are taking. Climate change, though, is a problem full of uncertainty, of scary big proportions. We don’t know exactly what is going to happen, and when, but we know it will be catastrophic if we don’t do something about it right now. It’s a scary message.

Then 2020 ramped up the level of uncertainty in our daily lives. Uncertainty this year has involved questions like: When will I get to go back to school? How will I manage to pass my exams when I’ve been home for half the year? When will they find a vaccine? How long are we going to be living with Covid-19? Covid-19 has brought uncertainty about big questions. Will there be enough food in the shops? How will we see our family? Will we be ok? How many people are going to get sick? There’s lots to be uncertain about.

For teenagers, uncertainty might be familiar, but that doesn’t mean its comfortable. When uncertainty is hard to cope with, it can feed into anxiety. A particular kind of anxiety called Generalised Anxiety Disorder is all about finding uncertainty difficult to tolerate. This means that anxiety creeps into all areas of life, in the form of worries. People often worry about the future. What if…? Worries can be going through your head constantly, and can impact things like sleep and being able to switch off. You might find that you want to fill your time so that you don’t have to face these worries. Finding uncertainty difficult can make every day decisions hard and you might find yourself overthinking things afterwards. You might find you seek reassurance from others a lot and rely on lists to plan your day. It also might feel hard to manage changes in your routine, as this adds to that feeling of uncertainty.

If you struggle with uncertainty 2020 is likely to have hit you particularly hard. But there is hope. There are things that can help make uncertainty feel less scary. Here are three ideas to try:

Contain the worry

When worry is a problem it can be hard to switch off. It can be pretty tiring and can get in the way of sleep and social relationships and school and pretty much everything! It can feel like an internal battle is happening all the time between you and anxiety. So instead of fighting, try to contain it. You can’t snap out of it. Its not that simple. Instead, lessen the time it takes from you. Give the worry a specific time. Put aside half an hour in a day when you’ll allow yourself to worry. And if you find worry creeping in at other times, remind yourself that you’ve got a time saved for that, and try to move onto something else. Another way to contain it is to have a worry book. Write down what is worrying you. Write it down and then, importantly, close the book! Worries can take you round and round the same circles. The idea is to stop the spiraling. It won’t make it go away, but it might give you some breathing space.

Learn to relax your body

Often the word relaxation is thrown around, but its actually quite hard to do when you’re feeling anxious. It takes practice. And a bit of trial and error too to find what works for you. Mindfulness ticks lots of boxes for anxiety. MyLife Meditation is an app that can get you started with this. Deep muscle relaxation is another really good way to release tension. Here is a link to a guide on this from Anxiety Canada. There are lots of other resources for relaxation out there. Find some exercises that work for you, and practice.

Challenge yourself

Rather than trying to avoid uncertainty, try to add some in to your day, on purpose, in very small ways. This sounds uncomfortable I know. But uncertainty is a bit like a noisy neighbour. It’s not going anywhere. Its intrusive. And you might need to invite it in and get to know it for it to feel less scary. So try out a little, just a little, and see if you can sit with the uncertainty, rather than trying to change it. For example, try to go to the grocery store without a shopping list. Do a task without asking for reassurance. Text a friend without checking what you wrote. Notice what you normally do to try and avoid uncertainty and challenge yourself by not doing this. What does it feel like? If it felt super scary then give yourself a big pat on the back then plan your next move. Do it again or make it a bit easier. Small steps. If it felt ok, try something different.

Be kind to yourself. Uncertainty is hard, and its in season at the moment. This is something that lots of people struggle with, and it can be different. If you need more support let someone know. You are not alone.

These strategies are based on CBT. This is an evidence-based talking therapy for anxiety. If you find that strategies are not enough you might find CBT helpful, and we can offer this at Imagine Therapy. Here is more information on how we work with teens. Please get in touch – we would love to help.

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