Anxiety on the Rise

I’m sure you know someone, either in your family or among your friends, who is highly anxious. You will recognize the rapid speech, need for reassurance and fear of new situations, sometimes accelerating into full-blown panic.

We have become scared to live.

Anxiety, according to the Report of the Surgeon General, is the most common emotional disorder among adults as well as during childhood and adolescence. About 13 of every 100 children and adolescents ages 9 to 17 experience some kind of anxiety disorder; girls are affected more than boys, in about 2:1 ratio.

The anxiety disorders include Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Separation Anxiety Disorder, Phobias, Social Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

Anxiety disorders now appear at younger ages. I get calls from preschool teachers whose students are so anxious that they cannot color a page without tears of distress. The teachers do not describe a child’s distress when the mother leaves at the beginning of the day; they see this heightened fear anytime a child puts pencil or crayon to paper, at a level that characterizes adults giving a presentation at a business luncheon!

Yet parents may be unaware of their children’s distress. According to this month’s edition of the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology, “about one-fifth of children reported they worry a great deal or a lot, but only 3 percent of parents rate their children’s stress as extreme” (p. 23).

What is happening here?

First of all, an anxious child often grows into an anxious adult. Genetically laden with a propensity toward anxiety, these children are often raised by equally anxious parent(s). Although anxiety may decrease with age, it often resurfaces at times of transition or stress.

Second, we are all burdened by information overload. The world’s suffering, violence and mayhem seem to be at our doorstep, with concomitant fear for the well-being of our loved ones.

Third, parents and adults in general experience more stress now than ever before, despite time-saving devices. Indeed the most common descriptor that I hear about life is that it’s hectic. Women especially experience more stress symptoms than men, such as “irritability or anger, fatigue and depression” (ibid., p.24). The resultant tension affects our marriages, parenting abilities, and our children’s mental health.

Fourth, our expectations of ourselves and our children have risen at the speed of new versions of Windows. Babies are taken to “enrichment” classes, toddlers are expected to have “play dates,” and preschoolers are required to know their numbers and letters by the time they enter kindergarten. And it only gets worse.

Five-year-olds must have computer skills and fifteen-year-olds top AP and PSAT scores. The pressure is on all of us to produce outstanding results, both in our personal and professional lives.

A feeling of urgency prevails, while our sense of safety declines.

What better recipe for anxiety disorders and stress?

We cannot turn back the clock, nor would we want to. We all enjoy the benefits of technology.

So what can a person do?

1. You can erect a barrier. You can restore the boundaries that existed in prior generations between the adult and children’s worlds. You can shield your children from the traumas that occur to so many people but which they blessedly do not have to experience. Not yet.

You can give your children back their childhood.

2. You can decide to get off the express train. You can learn how to handle mediocrity and accept what you have, to take the slow track and enjoy the scenery.

3. You can learn how to say, “No.”

No to taking an extra course or to signing up your child for one, filling up every waking hour with something to learn and do.

No to more gadgets that distract and compel you to interact in cyberspace, at the cost of real-world human interactions.

No to pressure to achieve, make more money, go to more social events, attend more meetings.

Yes to listening to your heart and hearing what you and your children need.

4. You can learn how to relax, reframe your problems and tone down your emotions. Only then will you learn how to appreciate the gift of life.

Breathe deeply. You can overcome your anxiety. Then you will truly know how to live.