Anxiety is more than “in your head”

Everyone knows what it feels like to be anxious. Your palms sweat, your stomach turns and your heart starts to flutter. Anxiety is a natural stress response your body produces when you are uncomfortable or worried about something.

However, some people tend to get much more anxious than others—so much so that it can be debilitating. Over the last few years, there’s been a sharp increase in anxiety disorders in teenagers and young adults. Currently, it’s estimated that 40 million people in the US have an anxiety disorder.

“Anxiety is becoming much more widespread in our young people, and we need to learn to recognize the symptoms and help them cope,” said Geisinger pediatrician Karen Ephlin, MD. “If we ignore symptoms or don’t take them seriously, they could be in danger of developing serious depression.”

Anxiety disorders are characterized by frequent, uncontrolled feelings of anxiety—often for reasons that may not be completely logical or well-defined. Some people may feel uncomfortable when talking to others in a social gathering, and others could have a difficult time leaving the house.

All in your head?
A common response to anxiety is “calm down” or “snap out of it” because it’s “all in your head.” While well-intentioned, these phrases tend to do more harm than good.

“Ultimately, phrases like ‘calm down’ aren’t very helpful to someone in the throes of an anxiety attack,” said Dr. Ephlin. “Saying calm down assumes that it can be wished away and isn’t a real issue in the first place. If someone is having an anxiety attack, you’re better to reassure them and talk to them about positive things and things they like.”

Nature, meet nurture
The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA began asking college students in 1985 if they were overwhelmed by all they had to do in the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said yes. In 2010, that number was 29 percent. Last year, it jumped to 41 percent.

The American College Health Association found that in their annual student survey, 62 percent of students reported “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year—up 12 percent from 2011.

The question facing researchers and parents is why is there an uptick in anxiety and where does it come from? There are many possible causes for anxiety disorders, including heredity and parenting style.

“Researchers have found that there are certain genes that are tied to anxiety disorders,” said Dr. Ephlin. “However, social factors such as high academic expectations or desire for popularity can cause risk-aversion behaviors in kids. Anxiety can also come from peers and bullying.”

Anxiety disorders often start small, but they can progress until kids become afraid of failure, afraid to socialize or even afraid to leave the house. Research also suggests that social media can trigger anxiety because it makes teenagers feel inadequate compared to their peers.

Treatment is available
There is some good news about the rise in anxiety, however. It is very treatable, both with therapy and medication.

“A particularly effective form of behavioral therapy is exposure therapy,” said Dr. Ephlin. “By exposing teens to what it is they fear, they realize it really isn’t that bad. Behavioral therapists will often make kids do things that are uncomfortable, such as socializing with strangers. And when they do, they realize that they are strong enough to face their fears. By reinforcing this with medication and coping mechanisms, anxiety can be treated.”

If your child is suffering from severe anxiety, it’s best to work with a doctor or therapist to make a treatment plan.

Dr. Karen Ephlin is a pediatrician at Geisinger Pediatrics, 166 Hanover. St., Wilkes-Barre. To schedule an appointment, please call 800-275-6401 or visit Geisinger.org.

Mom consoling daughter