Shilpa left home at eighteen for her college years in a renowned college in the city three hundred kilometers away from home. She made several friends her first week of classes and seemed to be coping well with the many adjustments of college life. Less than four days before her first set of final exams was to begin, however, Shilpa dropped out of college.
“I can’t take it anymore,” she explained to her roommate. “The professors just keep piling the work on like you have no other class but theirs. I just can’t keep up. I think I’m flunking every class. I haven’t even been to math class in something like three weeks; I know the professor hates me.” She sniffed loudly and rubbed her rose with the back of her hand. “I can hardly leave my room anymore because I’m afraid I’ll meet one of my profs.”
“What are you going to do? her roommate asked. “I don’t know. I can’t go home; if my daddy finds out, he’ll kill me.” Her eyes rimmed with tears. “He’s like this poor, farmer, and he’d go crazy if he knew his only daughter flunked her whole first year.” She pulled a box of the cupboard and began stuffing her pictures and poster into it.
“Where are you going to go? Shilpa lifted her head at her friend. Tears clouded her eyes, and she pressed her figures into the corner of each eye and wiped the tears away only to have eyes fill up again. She shrugged. “I don’t know. I have a couple days to clear out of here. Maybe I can find a job and get an apartment. Then I won’t have to tell Daddy.”
“You have to tell him sometime, Shilpa.” Shilpa shook her head violently from side to side. “No.” she answered. “I can’t. Never.” She struggled to remove a poster from the wall with wildly trembling fingers, but it ripped. She angrily wadded it into a ball and shoved it into the wastebasket.
Problem of Anxiety
Anxiety, the official emotion of our age.
Doctors Frank Minirth and Paul Meier call it “the underlying cause of most psychiatric problems.” Anxiety is sadly prevalent among today’s youth as well. Psychologist Mary Pipher characterizes adolescents as regularly “overwhelmed by anxiety.” Pipher writes, ” The kinds of challenges [they] face…are just too hard for them to deal with. All of the ways that early teenagers have to prove their adulthood are self-destructive things like drinking, using drug, sexual activity, smoking. Children who are just putting away comic books and dolls are confronted with issues that developmentally they’re not ready to handle.”
Stress and anxiety become a way of life for many young people.
Dr. G. Keith Olson writes: Along with anger and guilt, anxiety and fear are major players in the lives of many teenagers…..Anxiety can be defined as the experience of unrest. apprehension dread or agitation worry. It has been described as a fear in the absence of real danger, or a fear of something that is not clearly understood…… Anxiety, fear and worry form a complex system of emotions that make clear differentiation between them quite difficult. They tend to overestimate the negative or threatening aspects of a situation while drawing attention away from the positive or reassuring aspects. The person is left feeling uneasy, concerned, restless, irritable and fidgety.
Causes of Anxiety
“The cause of anxiety many,” write Minirth and Meier. “It can be the result of unconscious intrapsychic conflicts. It can be learned by example – such as identifying with parents who are anxious. It can come from childhood conflicts. It can come from present-day situational problems. It can come from being anxious about being anxious. It can come from fears of inferiority, poverty, or poor health.” Collins outlines five broad causes of anxiety: threat, conflict, fear, unmet needs, and individual differences.
Collins describes anxiety-producing threats as “those which come from perceived danger, a threat to one’s feelings of self-worth, separation and unconscious influences….” For example, anxiety may be caused by rejection or harassment from a peer, the possibility of parent’s separation, the prospect of flunking a course in school, or any number of real or perceived threats.
There are three kinds of conflicts that produces anxiety, according to Collins:
- ….a conflict over the tendency to pursue desirable but incompatible goals [such as a choice between a great summer job or going on a long-awaited family vacation]. either of which would be pleasant. Often making such a decision is difficult and sometimes it is anxiety arousing.
- …..a desire both to do something and not to do it. For example, a person may grapple with [ending a romantic relationship that seems to be going nowhere. Breaking up might bring more freedom and opportunity, but it might also be a traumatic, hurtful experience for both parties.] Making such decisions can involve considerable anxiety.
- ….Here there are two alternatives, both of which may be unpleasant like having pain versus having operation which might in time relieve the pain.
“Fear can come in response to a variety of situations.” writes Collins. “Different people are afraid of failure, the future, achieving success, rejection, intimacy, conflict, meaninglessness in life (sometimes called existential anxiety), sickness, death, loneliness, and a host of other real or imagined possibilities. Sometimes these fears can build up in one’s mind and create extreme anxiety -often in the absence of any real danger.”
“For many years psychologists and other writers have tried to identify the basic needs of human beings,” writes Collins. He cites Cecil Osborne’s conclusion that six needs are fundamental:
- survival (the need to have continues existence)
- security (economic and emotional)
- significance (to amount to something; to be worthwhile)
- self-fulfillment (to achieve fulfilling goals
- Selfhood (a sense of identity)
If we fail to meet these needs. Osborne believes, we are anxious, “up in the air,” afraid and often frustrated…..”
It is well known, of course, that people react differently in anxiety-producing situations
Collins writes, “Some people are almost never anxious, some seem highly anxious most of the time; many are in between. Some people are made anxious by a variety of situations; others find that only one or two issues trigger anxiety. [Such differences may be due to] the person’s psychology, personality, sociology, physiology or faith.”
“Most behavior is learned as a result of personal experience or teaching by parents and other significant persons. When we have failed and must try again, when we have been hurt in the past, when others have demanded more than we could give, when we have seen anxiety in other people (e.g., the child who learns to be anxious in thunderstorms because his mother was always anxious)….all of these are psychological reactions which arouse anxiety.”
“It may be that some people are more fearful or ‘high-strung’ than others. Some are more sensitive, self-centered, hostile, or insecure that others.”
A past president of India once suggested that “the cause of anxiety rest in our society; political instability, mobility which disturbs our sense of rootedness, shifting values, changing moral standards and religious beliefs, and so on.”
“The presence of disease can stimulate anxiety, but so can dietary imbalance, neurological malfunctioning and chemical factors within the body.”
Faith has a great bearing on one’s anxiety level.
If God is seen as all-powerful, loving, good, and in ultimate control of the universe, then there can be trust and security even the midst of turmoil….It should not be assumed, however, that non-believers necessarily are more anxious that believers. (Some believers, for example, are so worried about pleasing God that their faith increases anxiety). Nor should it be concluded that anxiety always reflects lack of faith. The causes of anxiety are too complex for such a simplistic explanation. Nevertheless, what we believe or do not believe does contribute to individual differences in the extent to which we experience anxiety.”
Not only may a person’s belief contribute to the experience of anxiety; Dr. G. Keith Olson identifies specific false beliefs as a major cause of anxiety among youth: many adolescents… believe one or more of the following false beliefs:
- It is essential that I am loved or approved by virtually everyone in my community.
- I must be perfectly competent, adequate and achieving in order to consider myself worthwhile.
- It is terrible catastrophe when things are not as I want them to be.
- Unhappiness is caused by outside circumstances, and I have no control over it.
- Dangerous or fearsome things are causes for great concern, and I must continually dwell upon their possibilities.
- It is easier to avoid certain difficulties and self-responsibilities than to face them.
- I should be dependent on others, and I must have someone stronger on whom I can rely.
- My past experiences and events are the determiners of my present behavior; I cannot eradicate or alter the influence of my past.
- I should be quiet upset over other people’s problems and disturbances.
- There is always a right or perfect solution to every problem, and I must always find it, or the results will be catastrophic.
Parents and youth leaders may recognize such false beliefs as often characteristic of adolescents. Such beliefs can, of course, give rise to considerable anxiety.
Effects of Anxiety
Anxiety sometimes produces beneficial effects; it can motivate a person, for example. Too much anxiety, however, can produce severe, even crippling, effects.
It is widely known that great stress and anxiety can produce ulcers, even in young persons. The other physical effects of anxiety are headaches, rashes, backaches, upset stomach, shortness of breath, sleeping problems, fatigue, and loss of appetite. In addition, the changes in blood pressure, muscle tension, and digestive and chemical changes caused by anxiety can, if they persist over time, cause severe harm.
When anxiety builds up, most people unconsciously rely on behaviors and thinking which dull the pain of anxiety and enable us to cope.
Collins writes, such reactions may include seeking relief in sleep, drugs, or alcohol, or trying to deny the reality or depth of the anxiety. Some young people may become uncharacteristically disagreeable, blaming others for their problems or throwing childish temper tantrums at the tiniest provocation.
Collins writes, anxiety can motivate us to seek divine help where it might be ignored otherwise. But anxiety can also drive us away from God at a time when he is most needed. Fraught with worry and distracted by pressure, even religious people find that there is a lack of time for prayer, decrease ability to concentrate, reduced interest for worship rituals, impatience and sometimes bitterness with God’s seeming silent.
It is with reason that anxiety is considered the “most pervasive psychological phenomenon of our time.” Anxiety can give rise to a dizzying plethora of disorders, such as:
Separation Anxiety Disorder. This psychological effect is demonstrated in excessive worry or fear of being separated from a parent or other important influence,
Avoidant Disorder of Adolescence.Olsan describes this behavior as “when the teenager desires warm, close and affectionate relationships with family members but strongly avoid making contact with strangers” – even peers.
Phobic Reactions. These reactions include fear of crowds and situations in which escape would be difficult (agoraphobia), fear of close spaces (claustrophobia), fear of heights (acrophobia), and various social phobias.
Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia. These eating disorders are characterized by anxiety about one’s weight and appearance.
Movement Disorders. Involuntary muscle “tics” can be anxiety related.
Response to the Problem of Anxiety
Trying to help a person suffering from acute anxiety is a difficult task, but one that can be aided by a course such as the followings:
Invite the young person to talk about his or her fears and anxieties at length, as much as he or she is capable of expressing such things. Take care, as much as possible, not to interrupt or dismiss the youth’s anxieties; a person suffering from acute anxiety will not be convinced by statements like, “Oh, that’s nothing to worry about!”
You may consider helping the youth to express himself or herself by asking such questions as the following:
- What things do you worry most about? What things are you most afraid of?
- Which of your worries seem to be unnecessary worries?
- Which seems to be realistic concerns?
- Are you more anxious or nervous at particular times? In particular places? When you’re with certain people?
- Are there times when your feelings go away?
- Have you tried to cope with or counter your feelings? How?
One of the greatest challenges in trying to guide a person suffering from acute anxiety is the tendency to become anxious oneself. Anxious people tend to make other people anxious. However, being aware of your own anxiety (even if it caused by the young person you’re trying to help) may help you gain insight into what the teen or preteen is feeling. As a concerned adult, you may express empathy by:
- Nodding your head.
- Making eye contact.
- Leaning forward in your chair to indicate interest and concern.
- Speaking in soothing tones.
- Listening carefully to verbal and nonverbal communication.
Dr, Jay Adams, writes “The enemy of fear is love…Fear and love vary inversely. The more fear, the less love; the more love, the less fear.” The youth leader, parent, or teachers who wishes to help young person deal with anxiety may sometimes be able to make significant progress simply by carefully, consistently, and sincerely affirming the young person as one who is valued and loved. Collins writes, “To show love…. to introduce [the young people] to the love of God, and to help them experience the joy of loving others, can all help to cast out fear and anxiety.”
The youth leader or parent’s goals should not be to eliminate all anxiety from a young person’s life; that will not be possible. The goal should be to help the teen or preteen equip himself or herself to cope with anxiety. This may be done by:
- Helping the youth admit his or her anxiety, understand its cause, and determine (with the support of others) to learn to cope with it.
- Challenging the young person to commit his or her fears to God and to find security and peace in the knowledge that God cares for him or her.
- Urging the youth to divert his or her attention from self to others. As Minirth and Meier says,
As an individual gets his mind off his own problems by helping others, his anxiety often decreases.
4. Turing the youth to God in prayer. Barry Applewhite writes, “Prayer provides real relief from anxiety and should be our natural response the moment anxiety begins to build.
Enlist the young man or woman’s participation, as much as possible, in devising a plan of action to handle stress and anxiety, such as the ten techniques suggested by Minirth and Meire in their book Happiness Is a Choice.
- Listen to music
- Get adequate exercise – ideally three times a week.
- Get adequate sleep. Most young people need eight hours of sleep per night.
- Do what you can to deal with the fear or problem causing the anxiety. Examine different alternatives or possible solutions and try one.
- Talk with a close friend at least once a week about your frustrations.
- Get adequate recreations –ideally two to three times per week.
- Live one day at a time. Probably 98 percent of the things we are anxious about or worry about never happen. Learning to live one day at a time is an art that can be cultivated.
- Imagine the worst thing that could possibly happen. Then consider why that wouldn’t be so bad after all.
- Don’t put things off. Putting things off causes more anxiety.
- Set a time limit on your worries.
If you are not the young person’s parent, take the earliest opportunity to inform and involve parents; such involvement, as explained earlier in these articles, is critical. If the youth is hesitant to involve Mom or Dad, try to find out why. Consider asking such questions as:
- Would you rather prefer I talk to your parents?
- Would you prefer to do it yourself?
- Would you like me to accompany you?
If the young person become more anxious in spite of the youth leader or parent’s sincere and knowledgeable efforts, it may be necessary for the youth and his or her parents to consider involving a professional counsellor – particularly if the anxiety is so advance as to give rise to disorders and panic attacks.
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Bijo Joseph is the founder of Bijoyful Foundation, a faith-based NGO (reg. 357152/sec. 8 co.) that aims to deliver positive changes in the lives of young people troubled with adverse mental health, addiction or other life challenges through range of strength-based, recovery and livelihood programs and support offered by coaches, counsellors, social workers and volunteers. He has the youth leadership experience of 17 years and with educational foundation from TISS, Mumbai & IIM Calcutta.