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Professional counselor gives advice on dealing with anxiety in a new school year

Professional counselor, pastoral associate gives tips on recognizing, dealing with signs of anxiety in young people

The start of a new school year is often filled with the excitement of being back in school with friends, having new teachers, and the possibilities that come with learning.

But the transition into a new school year also can be filled with anxiety for some students. Mental health professionals say that anxiety is the leading mental health issue among young people in the United States. Researchers with the National Survey of Children’s Health found a 20 percent increase in diagnoses of anxiety between 2007 and 2012 among children ages 6 to 17.

Many factors contribute to anxiety among young people. Social media, catastrophic events such as school shootings and subsequent “intruder drills” conducted in schools, overscheduling activities, and high expectations to succeed are some of those factors.

Jennifer Ryan is a licensed professional counselor and former youth minister and college campus minister who later this month will speak to youth ministers in the archdiocese on tough topics in pastoral care. Ryan, now a pastoral associate at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in Crestwood, previously worked as a counselor at Catholic Family Services (now Saint Louis Counseling).

Her message will be tailored toward youth ministers, covering issues such as anxiety, depression and suicide among teens. But Ryan said that the message can be applied to anyone working with young people, such as parents, teachers and coaches. Being a good listener and maintaining a good relationship with a young person are key components to better understand what they are going through, and how to provide help — and when to seek professional help.

Above all, Ryan said it’s important to help young people understand their sense of identity through their relationship with God. “When there’s a loss of (faith), people lose that sense of identity as a beloved son or daughter of God,” she said. “We need to help them understand you are good enough because you’re you. That’s the foundation of all the issues we deal with” in society, she said. “Within that sense of being known by God and accepted by Him, is this amazing chance we have to become like Christ to another person. Because we can let them know that we love them and accept them despite whatever they’re going through.”

Be a good listener

If a young person approaches you with something they’re dealing with, it’s a good sign that there already is an established sense of trust, Ryan said. Social media makes it so easy for people to share the details of their lives, but it’s filtered — most people only share the positive parts of their lives. So when someone approaches with a problem, recognize that this is a time to listen, which requires humility, Ryan said. Ask open-ended questions, such as “Tell me what’s going on?” she said. “Anything we can do to help give them a format to tell more about themselves is helpful.”

Be sure to pay attention to non-verbal communication, such as using good eye contact, leaning into the person and avoiding crossing your arms when listening. And if you’re not certain what is being conveyed, ask clarifying questions to make sure it’s understood what’s going on.

Look for biological signs

Changes in behavior are signs that something deeper is going on, Ryan said. Anxiety may induce headaches, upset stomach or anger. It can affect a person’s daily living. “Look at things like sleeping, eating or exercise,” she said. “Is there some disruption in any of those? And if there is, where’s that coming from?” Examples could include a normally good student whose grades are now suffering, or someone who usually has good organizational skills is now struggling to keep up with his or her schedule. Asking questions can assist in uncovering the reasons for a change in behavior.

The role of a trusted adult

Ryan said that adults in trusted positions, such as youth ministers, school counselors or teachers, have important roles in helping young people communicate with their parents about their feelings of anxiety. She suggested presenting several options to foster communication between the young person and his/her parents. That could include talking points to help start a conversation at home, or an offer to accompany the young person when talking with parents or offering to follow up with the parents afterward. “Giving them the choice is very big,” Ryan said.

When to seek professional help

It’s important to remember that sadness and worry are normal emotions. But when those intense emotions interfere with normal living, it might be time to seek professional help, Ryan said. “A lot of people will have a social structure built in where you can talk about it, and it gets better,” she said. “But if you’re trying to talk to people and it’s not getting better, that can be another sign.”

It’s important to know that a person does not have to experience a major traumatic event in order to seek counseling. “Sometimes you just want to process through a relationship or a big decision where you think you could use some help,” she said. “Where did we this idea as a society that we have to go through everything alone? Because we don’t.”

>> Stay organized

One concrete way to help with anxiety is to stay organized. Jennifer Ryan suggested the use of a planner — whether a spiral bound calendar, or using an electronic app. For younger children, making use of a visual schedule to help them stay on task also can be helpful.

People often feel anxious and overwhelmed because they think they don’t have enough time, Ryan said. She recommended scheduling the things that need to be done, such as homework or sports practices, as well as the other priorities that you’d like to fit into the day. “Sometimes we get full with a lot of those ‘time sucks’ in our lives, like watching Netflix or YouTube and looking at social media. That can take up a lot of time out of the day. When you remove those things, all of a sudden you find you have the time.”


Another major cause of anxiety in young people is a sense of being overscheduled. Ryan suggested limiting extracurricular activities, which might seem difficult to do. Limiting activities allows young people to become more dedicated to learning the skill of the activity they’re involved with, rather than being spread out over numerous activities. It also allows for more unscheduled recreation time for young people.

>> Recognizing emotions

Oftentimes people go about their day and don’t even recognize how they’re feeling. Jennifer Ryan said she often finds this with people who don’t take time to pray. “Prayer fills in so many of these psychological needs,” she said. “It’s built in, because it’s a sharing with God. But it’s also self-revelatory — to stop and ask yourself how am I feeling? A lot of times you’ll feel emotions coming out. We can ask ourselves, where is this coming from? Is it proportionate to what I am experiencing? If you’re exploding over someone who looked at you funny, you need to address what is really going on.”

The sacraments and prayer

The Church’s sacraments can play an important role in fulfilling our psychological needs, Ryan said. When things are outside of our control and seem difficult, we can turn to God in the sacraments to find a sense of hope.

Confession, for example, helps us to be aware of what’s going on in our lives, where we are responsible for our actions and how we can grow as individuals, Ryan said. “There’s a sense of acceptance no matter what is going on or what I have done, I can grow and be accepted and loved,” she said.

The Eucharist is a coming together as community, Ryan said. At Mass, “we are not alone, and we see the people who are there with us,” she noted.

The mindfulness movement, which has grown in secular popularity in recent years through books, websites and apps, can take a cue from traditions of the Church. Take the Rosary for example. “What is that if it’s not being aware and present in that moment with God?” Ryan said. “That’s what prayer is all about.”

The Daily Examen, a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day to detect God’s presence and discern His direction for us and derived from St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, is a method to look for moments of gratitude. Read more at www.ignatianspirituality.com/ ignatian-prayer/the-examen/.

>> Anxiety on the rise in young people

The Child Mind Institute in its 2018 Children’s Mental Health Report notes that in the past 10 years, there has been increasing recognition of anxiety in young people by health care providers, including a 17% increase in anxiety disorder diagnosis.

Yet anxiety symptoms are minimized or ignored. As little as 1% of youth with anxiety seek treatment in the year symptoms begin.

At some point, anxiety affects 30% of children and adolescents, yet 80% never get help.

Mental disorders among children are described as serious changes in the way children typically learn, behave, or handle their emotions, causing distress and problems getting through the day. Among the more common mental disorders that can be diagnosed in childhood are attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and behavior disorders.

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