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Anxiety: The shadow of the unknown through the eyes of a teenager.

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

General anxiety is usually best described as a mood defined by a strong negative emotion and associated bodily symptoms of tension, most people experience anxiety from time to time and exercise adaptive coping skills to assist their physical or psychological changes which could appear externally through situations, people or their environment, and this adaptive emotional response is usually layered by emotional regulation, resilience, adaptation, cognitive rationality, locus of control, and previous experiences. However, when anxiety becomes debilitating and the individual struggles to cope with daily activities, and perceives threat through their thoughts, situations or people that pose no danger, it could create a sense of helplessness, and interfere with the ability of the individual to cope with uncontrollable anxiety.

Additionally, fearful thoughts, which can either be perceived in the mind or potentially be real, still triggers a part of the brain called the amygdala which senses this “danger”, this is part of human DNA survival kit and has been hard wired into us as humans from 2000 years ago. As such the body and mind is perfectly built to activate the stress-reactive circuits in the emotional brain, as a trigger to the perceived stress, your sympathetic nervous system quite literally lights up, and indirectly presses the “on” button, and while your body gets flooded with chemicals that are required for this fight or flight system to respond to the “external stress”, the entire beautiful orchestrated symphony to keep you alive and meant to prepare you physically or mentally for self-defence or escape, is also a chemical surge of adrenalin and noradrenalin which over long periods may eventually “burn out” the adrenal glands, while the cardiovascular effect of the increased heart rate and the respiratory effect of breathlessness, chest pains and choking, decreased digestion and muscle tension create their own wear and tear on your body over time. Luckily there are still very good therapeutic interventions that neutralises the Rio Carnival that takes place in the body, such as trauma release and meditation.

In children there are various types of anxieties such as separation anxiety, test anxiety, social anxiety, competence, the excessive need for reassurance and anxiety around the fear of harm to their parents or caregivers. Anxieties also change as the child ages, but for some anxious symptoms may become a character trait, that may develop excessive fears related to the developmental stage, different ages also carry their own development path and what was important to a 15 year old will be different for a 16 year old, also the dynamics of an open or closed system within the family and how it plays out daily will effect the child or teenager in later years, disruption in the system, on a micro or macro level may become relevant in the young adolescents life and potentially also play out in post-traumatic stress disorders.

The general fear of the unknown depicted through the epidemic and the conditions that were set for their interactions with their peers and what children had known as their “tribe” turned to isolation, and was decided by some “unknown enemy” across the world that now dictated terms in and around their social interaction. Childhood and adolescence phases are critical stages of life for mental health. This is a time when rapid growth and development take place in the brain, as such children and adolescents acquire cognitive and social-emotional skills that shape their future mental health and are important for assuming adult roles in society.

The quality of the environment where children and adolescents grow up shapes their well-being and development. Early negative experiences in the world, their homes, schools, or digital spaces, such as exposure to violence, the mental illness of a parent or other caregiver, bullying and poverty, increase the risk of mental illness.

As adults we have a fully functional prefrontal cortex, and have the ability cognitively to use the part of the brain reserved for logical steps and taking into consideration a spectrum of risk, trial and error, through to understanding; however the adolescent will only have a fully developed cortex by the age of 25, which suddenly explains a myriad of teenage behaviours, as such teenagers may rely more on the part of the brain that is associated with emotions, impulses, aggression, instinctive behaviours which is the part of the brain called the amygdala. So, consider the difficulty in making sense of the world, through the eyes of a teenager, reviewing a new identity due to Covid even before the other one was not even completely developed, adding additional anxieties with the fear of death of a parent, and questions around purpose and belief, striving for dreams and hopes that may end abruptly, as one of my young clients would express “what is the point” so add in the additional anxieties around performance and being perfect and for a teenager or adolescent a full understanding of this may not be cognitively possible, so the opposite behaviour of procrastination may become relevant.

The child may even present with cognitive response to the stress through thoughts of being scared, which starts the entire trigger of chemical to the body, self-critical thoughts, thoughts of incompetence and inadequacy, blanking out and forgetting, thoughts of appearing foolish, of going crazy, as well as thoughts of contamination. With all this, the child may turn inward, distort a situation or invent explanation for their anxieties.

Questions such as, what can be done? when can you do it? how does the dream look? becoming somewhat of an illusion and a daily battle with the young self. This unknown will create a perfect grounding for procrastination, and basic survival instincts, seeking out thrills and living an edgy life or in a state of anxiety and projecting the pain and confusion onto those that are the closest such as their parents or caregivers, potentially in the hope of getting someone to recognise the pain and uncertainty and help with guidance because the child does not have the ability to understand it and fully comprehend it yet.

Relearning and refreezing healthy behaviours that stem from debilitating anxieties with associated coping mechanisms and early adoption of tools and techniques in dealing with situations may be helpful for the young teenager or adolescent that is going through just trying to be a teenager in an unknown world.

- Delene Strydom is a mental health and wellness practice which offers various therapeutic options to assist in anxiety, substance abuse, addictions, relationships, intimate or professional as well as divorce management and personal healing for both adults and adolescents. / 084 777 4409

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