Advice from a therapist: Helping teens cope with anxiety and pressure

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By Adele Stuckey and Matthew Brooks

Post pandemic, adults talk about figuring out the “new normal.” As teenagers, you have an even harder job. You have to navigate the new normal with your own interests in mind. How do you have autonomy after this intense period of no autonomy?

The way you act socially is different now compared to life before 2020. Let’s say you were 10 when the pandemic started and now you are 13.

That’s a huge difference in your social world. You didn’t get to move gradually through the transition.

We learned solely how to interact through the digital world for a significant amount of time. Now we’re asking you to navigate in-person social interactions and to get out in the world independently.

It’s common to feel alone and experience challenges connecting with others. It’s going to take some practice to cope with the anxiety of learning how to emerge from a pandemic while also emerging into your independent self. One thing our teenage clients talk a lot about is pressure. There was pressure to learn in lockdown, but it was hard to learn while the stress of the pandemic raged around you. There’s an unrealistic learning curve where you’re supposed to meet expectations aligned with the old system. During the pandemic, everything stopped and the system stayed the same. You’re expected to meet academic standards and pass tests, but we’ve all changed.

If you feel anxiety about being unprepared, know that while it’s hard to catch up and change, it’s not impossible. Rather than thinking of the expectations around you as pressure to leap forward, remind yourself that you are in transition. Get clarity on what the expectations are for assignments in school. Ask for support and extra help when you need it.

When stress builds up in our bodies, it can make us anxious and sick. We can cope by finding community. Talking with others can help you feel less alone. First, identify your support system. Who are people who are safe and whom you trust? This could be friends, family, school staff or a therapist.

We process stress through movement and joy. Having fun and laughing are crucial to your mental and physical health. Teenagers feel so much pressure to succeed in academics and extracurriculars. Allow yourself time to seek out joy.

One joyful experience is not enough. Seek joy, movement and connection every day to manage stress and anxiety. Anxiety’s grip will loosen as this becomes a practice.

Be mindful about social media. We love TikTok because it makes us feel less alone in our struggles. But some TikTok videos try to convince you that you may have one disorder or another. Keep in mind what you’re experiencing doesn’t have to be labeled.

School start times are not set up for what’s actually best for teenagers. We realize tell- ing you to go to bed early is not as easy as it sounds. But getting a full night of sleep will make a difference in your ability to cope with the pressures you face. Sleep deprivation can present as anxiety, depression and a whole host of other problems.

We focus a lot on the damage that the pandemic has done and the trauma you’ve endured. It is important to remember that while trauma can disrupt your ability to cope, it can also be a launchpad for resilience.

Your generation has endured a huge, hard thing at an early age, but that doesn’t make you broken. It makes you tough and well-equipped to manage difficult times ahead. You have clear eyes about the world and that’s an asset.

Adele Stuckey is a licensed professional counselor, Board-Certified art therapist and the owner and clinical director of Alexandria Art Therapy. Matthew Brooks is a licensed professional counselor and registered art therapist at Alexandria Art Therapy. Visit alexandriaarttherapy.com to learn more.

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