Anxiety has a way of enveloping children in an endless loop of worry they can’t escape, Goff explains. For some, it’s the fear of throwing up at school or of being separated from their parents. For others—particularly those who’ve learned how to navigate technology—it’s becoming aware of realities such as sexual assault, suicide, or terminal illness, and then beginning to incessantly fixate on whether those kind of scenarios could possibly happen to them.
Nineteen-year-old Sabrina has experienced feelings of nervousness, uncertainty, and insecurity for most of her adolescent life—particularly when it comes to the classroom.
From middle school on, she rigorously over-prepared, making straight As and enrolling in a full load of honors and advanced-placement courses. Her teachers also encouraged her to get involved in as many extracurricular activities as possible for the sake of preparing for college admissions. Despite her perfect grades and apparent success, she worried constantly about what people thought of her and how she was being perceived. She became terrified of confrontation or punishment, even when she’d done nothing wrong.
Additionally, she saw peers around her balancing a job and learning to drive. “I had no idea how it was possible. Based on the high standards I’d set for myself, I could barely manage my normal school workload—and that often took all night,” she says.
Her growing anxiety led to experiencing times of involuntary shaking, an elevated heart rate, a racing mind, and even vomiting. She had bouts of insomnia and eventually full-blown panic attacks, which forced her to remain home from school (even though an absence would make her worry about what she was missing).
At this point, her mother, realized they were up against something they couldn’t fix—even though as a Christian family they’d prayed nightly for years, naming Sabrina’s worries out loud. “I think we can be too quick to think that anxiety is a completely spiritual problem; that the one who suffers just doesn’t trust God enough,” her mother says. “Those who suffer from anxiety would like nothing better than to cast their cares away—they just aren’t able to do it.”
Sabrina’s parents turned to their family doctor, who eventually diagnosed Sabrina with general and social anxiety disorder and recommended therapy and medication for a certain period of time.
Sabrina is one of more than 6 million American teens grappling with an anxiety disorder of some kind. While not every child’s experience is as extreme as Sabrina’s, some experts believe this number is actually low, considering that many adolescents don’t always seek treatment. Further, it doesn’t take into account children under 12, whom therapists say are also increasingly facing anxiety that exceeds normal childhood fears and worries.
Just within the last five years, Sissy Goff, a licensed Christian counselor for children and adolescents in Nashville, has seen a dramatic increase in the number of new young clients she has begun treating for anxiety. “When I first started counseling twenty-four years ago, probably one out of every twenty kids coming in were dealing with anxiety,” she says. “Now, out of my new appointments, I would say at least sixteen of every twenty families are here for that reason, if not more.”
More Pressure, More Stimulus, More Trickle-Down Stress
Experts believe the rising number of children and adolescents dealing with anxiety is the result of several cultural, biological, and familial factors. As was the case with Sabrina, the emphasis placed on succeeding academically, along with the demands of the college application process, can feel daunting. So can the reality of expensive university tuition.
Kids today are also coming of age in a time when they’ve never known life apart from smartphones, social media, terrorism, and global conflict. They feel pressure to create and manage a digital identity. And they have endless information at their technological fingertips which has the potential to emotionally overwhelm them.
“They’re in a cauldron of stimulus they can’t get away from, or don’t want to get away from, or don’t know how to get away from,” remarked Janis Whitlock in a recent Time magazine article on depression and anxiety in the American adolescent. (Whitlock leads a research program at Cornell on self-injury and recovery, as many teens now use cutting to deal with anxiety.)
Even young children can experience a prolonged sense of neurological agitation that comes from screen-time associated with activities such as video games. “The brain becomes overstimulated and doesn’t have a way to calm itself back down,” Goff says. “So kids stay in an anxious frame of mind.”