Written by Jane Pendry
Anxiety in teens and young adults is on the rise.
Why is it a worsening problem? And how can young adults manage and resolve anxiety related issues and flourish in our ever changing world?
Frontal lobes in adolescent brains, needed for executive function, impulse control and judgement, are not fully formed in young adults. In fact neuroscientists agree that brain development continues until at least the mid-20s, and possibly until the 30s.
Explains a lot, doesn’t it?
The young developing brain is much more vulnerable to stress and anxiety than the fully developed adult brain.
We know trainee adults need to work out the answers for themselves. But they are facing an unprecedented number of challenges and they need our support more than ever.
It’s a Problem That Can Be Fixed
Solution Focused approaches use skilled open questioning to help clients work out what they want and how to get there. For adolescents this feels respectful, supportive and empowering.
As a Solution Focused Hypnotherapist, I know that even the most anxious adolescent can learn to manage their anxiety and take control of their thought processes.
Young minds are more plastic than adult minds. New wiring and connections are being made and unmade all the time. So what has been learned and is unhelpful, can be unlearned.
When Laura, aged 16, came to see me, with her concerned mother, she was terrified of travelling to school and back. She was tearful, and extremely anxious about walking down the street; even accompanied by her family.
Yet, three sessions later, Laura was travelling to school on the bus, walking along her street at night, and even travelled to a music festival.
These incredible results were due to the plasticity of her young mind.
Why do young people get anxious?
Anxiety triggers the production of stress hormones that make us take action; study harder, prepare more carefully for a meeting or presentation, or focus our attention on an important social event such as a wedding. But that’s a healthy level of anxiety. We can manage it and resolve it once the exam has been taken, the meeting is over or we are off on honeymoon.
For adolescents, emotions are, as you may have noticed, WRIT LARGE.
Frances Jensen M.D, and Amy Ellis Nutt in ‘The Teenage Brain’ explain what is different about the adolescent brain and what that means for managing anxiety and stress. Hormones impact on the teenage mind, and result in moodiness, impulsivity and sometimes poor choices. Jensen and Ellis Nutt add, - “… there is more at play in the teenage brain, where new connections between brain areas are being built and many chemicals, especially neurotransmitters, the “brain’s messengers,” are in flux.”
This mind ‘in flux’ has some benefits. Teenagers see wonder and excitement in events and experiences about which middle-aged brains can barely muster a flicker of interest, from boy bands and Ariane Grande, to heavy metal and rave; from go-karting and paragliding to pink hair and Doctor Martin boots. Whatever their interests, their experiences, good and bad, are heightened.
When we are young, we see Romeo & Juliet as the greatest tragedy of two young lovers kept apart by warring families with tragic consequences. As an adult, remembering Romeo first loved Rosamund hours before he fell for Juliet, we know that the real tragedy is that this young love is a passing fancy founded on nothing more than pheromones, the thrill of climbing a balcony, and the frisson of the elicit.
Jensen and Ellis Nutt go on to explain, “Because of the flexibility and growth of the adolescent brain, adolescents have a window of opportunity with an increased capacity for remarkable accomplishments. But flexibility, growth, and exuberance are a double-edged sword because an “open” and excitable brain also can be adversely affected by stress, drugs, chemical substances, and any other number of changes in the environment.” They conclude that these influences can have dramatic consequences.
So we know a young mind is both open to learning and new experiences, but much more vulnerable to stress and environmental change.
The Stresses of a Changing World
We also know that the world in which adolescents now live is changing at a dramatic pace. Let’s look at some of the challenges our young people face:
There is the old ones – been there, done it:
- Social anxiety; a desire to fit in and find your ‘tribe’
- Sex hormones; the unspoken complexities of the dating game
- Exam anxiety; choosing subjects, revising, university interviews
- Career choices; thinking about careers, interviews, training and so forth
And the new - thank goodness we have never had challenges to deal with:
- Social media: air-brushed images and friends or celebrities with ‘perfect’ lives; cyberbullying and endless gossip; the sheer volume of tweets, and the constant flip, flip, flip of images and snippets of text.
- Computer games; often highly addictive and stimulating; violent and highly realistic images may help process feelings, or over stimulate their young minds.
- The internet: easy access to extreme and sometimes violent porn, hyper-sexualisation of some young people, which creates further anxiety in their social lives
- TV: endless fascinating TV shows on all channels; when do you go to bed?
Need I go on. You all know what the external stressors are because you see the impact on the young people you love and care about. Or you experience them yourself.
Anxiety is a Natural State
As a Solution Focused Hypnotherapist, my first free initial consultation focuses on how the brain works.
Anxiety is a natural state; a signifier that there is danger. For tribesmen living in a rain forest or a jungle, the danger will be real, present and physical; snakes, tigers, alligators. Tribesmen in these environments need to be on high alert. If they see an animal they know to be dangerous, they fight, flee or freeze. But when they respond to danger they are not using their intellectual brain. The responses to anxiety and fear all come from the primitive mind, which we know cannot innovate or create solutions.
The Primitive Mind
The pea-sized amygdala is the ‘flight, fight, freeze’ part of the mind. It is closely connected to two other primitive parts of the brain: the hippocampus that stores the patterns of behaviour, both helpful and appropriate, and unhelpful; and the hypothalamus, which regulates hormones in the brain. When the amygdala is responding to stress or fear, the hypothalamus floods the body with stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, giving enough short term energy to take instant action.
Now if our adolescents were living in the jungle, that would be hugely useful for their survival. But in our more complex modern world, anxiety can develop over time. Stressors, such as exams aren’t just related to the day the exam is taken, but impacted by many months of revision prior to the exam. Social anxiety isn’t experienced on the tribe’s festivals and holidays, but every day at school. Many stressors are experienced daily.
Freddy, aged 17, couldn’t stop playing computer games. Some were violent; all of them had an addictive quality. His mother was concerned that his obsessive playing was impacting on his mental health, and on his future as he was not sleeping, nor studying for his A Levels. He became ‘wired’ and developed chronic sleep issues and, almost inevitably, chronic anxiety.
When Anxiety develops over time, it no longer has any useful function. It becomes debilitating, and can lead to exhaustion, chronic depression and obsessive behaviours.
What can we do about it?
Nothing. That’s right. You can’t do anything.
But your trainee adult child can do something. The good news is that the teenage brain is particularly plastic. Their young brains continue to make connections and they have the capacity to learn extraordinary quickly, whether academically, creatively or practically.
Solution Focused Brief Therapy and Hypnotherapy
As you know from the adolescents and young adults in your life, you can’t tell them anything. And that’s great for a Solution Focused Therapist as we don’t tell them to do anything.
Nothing. De Nada. Zip.
The great thing about Solution Focused approaches is that they don’t require the practitioner to dig in to the past or to ask lots of personal and penetrating questions, nor do they require the therapist to give any advice.
“So how does that work then?” I hear you ask.
We all know that lovely, warm, affectionate children seem to wake up one morning and turn in to mono-syllabic, uncommunicative, eye-brow raising teens that find parents just the most annoying, pointless and frustrating people on the planet. Just like Harry Enfield’s Kevin, for those of you old enough to remember.
That makes young teens very hard to help. They know everything; you know nothing. Yet you see them suffer with anxiety about things they either don’t want to discuss, or can’t articulate.
Instead of exploring ‘problems’ and looking for reasons, Solution Focused therapies and coaching turn that idea on its head.
We don’t worry about what caused the anxiety. We don’t need to know if the boy who caused the pain and despair is called Ryan, Brian or indeed, Romeo. We don’t need to know who said what to whom and when. We don’t need to know anything (although I am happy to listen when clients need to talk but it isn’t actively part of the therapeutic process).
Exploring Best Hopes
I ask specific questions that focus on, ‘What’s been good about your week’. These questions move a young client out of their primitive mind, and into their left pre-frontal cortex - the intellectual mind that searches for solutions.
Through tears, and after a series of skilled questions, Laura said, “I want to be able to go to school on my own without feeling anxious. I want to feel calm and in control. I want to be able to see my friends and come home without being terrified about getting home.”
You can imagine it much easier for her to focus on what she wanted, rather than what she didn’t want. Her subconscious mind began to create a picture of what was possible and what might be better, and the tears dried. She was not focusing on what was causing her distress. That’s the first shift in thinking.
For Hamza, aged 19, he wanted to rid himself of his crippling social anxiety. He wanted to be able to go to the pub or parties without feeling his heart thumping in his ribs, and without finding it hard to breathe and feeling a hard lump in the pit of his stomach. Now that was a good description of what he wanted but it was still framed in negative terms.
What did Hamza really want?
I asked him to turn his thinking around, and a few questions later, this is what he said, “I want to look forward to going out with my friends. I want to be at ease and to not worry about what I am going to say, or whether I am liked or not. If I see a girl I like I want to be able to speak to her in a normal way…” Through further open questions, he was able to build a full, colourful, experiential picture of what he wanted.
Now we were ready to make the changes Laura and Hamza wanted.
Hypnotherapy: rewiring the brain the painless way
Parents and their older children often have concerns about hypnotherapy.
But I am not Derren Brown, or Paul McKenna. They use hypnotic techniques and are highly skilled. But they are entertainers. I cannot make your child do anything they don’t want to do. The trance state created through suggestions is similar to the dreamy feeling of watching an absorbing film or listening to a favourite album.
The SF Hypnotherapy uses Ericksonian language, which is hypnotic language primarily centred around suggestions that can be accepted or rejected by the subconscious mind.
After a brief relaxation script to help the body unwind and the mind let go, I deliver a script focused on walking down stairs to a room where ‘nobody goes but you’. This is an imaginary place where your son or daughter can ‘rehearse the person they want to be’. Once they are in a state of deep relaxation, similar to being absorbed in a book or film, they remain conscious and aware, but deeply relaxed.
I then deliver tried and tested scripts focusing on creating firm boundaries, or being in control of their thoughts or whatever is appropriate to their circumstances.
Patents are most welcome to stay in the session with their children and often enjoy and benefit from the experience.
Prior to the first active session, clients listen to a recording of a hypnotherapy relaxation session daily to prime their minds for the tailored hypnotherapeutic process. Usually we then have two to four sessions, sometimes more in the cases of OCD, embedded anxiety, sensory overload due to Aspergers’ or depression.
So for Hamza, it took just the initial consultation and three hypnotherapy sessions before he was able to comfortably socialise. For Laura, it was three sessions in total before she was able to go back to school on the bus.
Laura’s mother wrote the following, “I have had the experience of getting support from Jane Pendry, at Sense Ability, for Laura and I would highly recommend trying her approach to unblock issues. She has helped Laura feel more in control of her situation and reduced her anxiety to an appropriate level”
“After two or three sessions each, Laura has had, what I would term as, a remarkable improvement. She now feels comfortable taking the bus to and from school every day.“
For my client Tammy, her issues were more profound. She had been diagnosed with BPD and in her early twenties found she was unable to work full time, frequently felt dissociated and was often tearful and depressed. Ten months later she was a feisty mentally healthy young woman on her way to university. So the process still works for profound and embedded issues.
From Anxiety to Calm and in Control
There are many ways to help your older children with anxiety issues, including CBT, which is highly effective with a well-trained therapist who can tailor their approach to your child, and some hard work on their part. Counselling and more traditional talking therapies, and medication as a last port of call (to be avoided if possible), are all effective. But Solution Focused therapies are uniquely suited to help young minds create resilience and overcome anxiety related issues, without drugs, and with relative ease.
The names used in this article have been changed to protect the identity of my clients.