Everyone has anxiety, including teens and tweens. Anxiety is important. It’s a natural reaction that our body has to a new situation. It serves as a basic survival function – like a warning system that alerts us whenever we perceive a dangerous experience. For some, it works over time and needs to be controlled. Techniques including visualization and mindfulness can help tweens or teens with anxiety.
- Visualization – The tween/teen needs to talk about their anxiety in tangible ways. What does it look like? How big is it? Where does it live? What does it sound like? Eventually, they draw the anxiety as they see it and we talk about the details. Basically, have them paint a very vivid picture of their anxiety. The key is to get them to connect their anxiety to the painting instead of some scary elusive being next time the anxiety visits.
- Writing/Journaling – The teen or tween can write stories (mainly fantasy) where they challenge the anxiety and win. This starts to take the power away from the anxiety. You can get some truly amazing stories from your clients, who have big imaginations. It also gives you insight into what about the anxiety is the scariest for each teen/tween with anxiety and use that information to help them moving forward.
- Building a mantra – A mantra is a saying that is meaningful to you that when repeated, makes you feel calm, confident and grounded. You can also call this “your theme song.” It can be completely made up, a great line you heard from a movie or a verse from a song/poem that just makes you feel good, powerful and strong. Once a tween/teen chooses a mantra, have them repeat it pretty consistently until they fully embrace it. You want them to “naturally” start reciting the mantra next time they have an anxiety attack to ground themselves and move through the anxiety.
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Like many others, I too believe that teens with anxiety benefit from mindfulness techniques; however, I find that before a teen can practice mindfulness techniques, they first need to identify the anxiety in a tangible way. I believe the best way to do this is through what I call an anxiety log. This is simply a journal or notebook that a teen can write in about their weekly experiences with anxiety.
- Step One- I encourage my clients to keep a notebook or journal and write down every time they feel anxious (date and time) for two weeks. This way we can first determine “how frequently” their anxiety occurs. It’s a great starting point for them to take control of the anxiety, name it and have a direct response to its occurrence. It also serves as a good marker to understand the “typical” amount of anxiety a particular teens feels/experiences in any given week.
- Step Two- I have my clients tell me in detail about the anxiety they wrote down in their log. This way the anxiety is no longer some secretive scary thing, it’s something we openly talk about together in a safe space. We continue this for a few weeks.
- Step Three- I have my clients continue with the log, but at this point (along w date/time) they write down what is happening WHEN the anxiety occurs. (Such as: where they were, who was there, time of day, etc.) This starts to take the power away from the anxiety. Instead of freezing in panic, heart pounding, palms sweating during the next anxiety attack, they start to direct their focus to the details around the attack for the log. I find that teens will go back after an anxiety attack and write volumes about the situation/experience. This (called journaling) in and of itself is a powerful tool for empowerment and healing.
- Step Four- Along with the above steps, I now have THEM rank the attacks on a scale of (1-10) so we can better understand, which were the worst and which were the easier attacks to get through. At this point, they are painting a very full and clear picture of their anxiety.
After a few months of meetings, we now have enough data to look at patterns in the anxiety as well as their triggers. I can ask questions such as: “What do you think the attacks have in common?” Or, “Why do you think the attacks are only at night? This way they are an active participant in putting the puzzle together around their own anxiety. So the next time they have an attack they will start to think…… “Why is this happening right now? What just triggered the anxiety? Have I seen this pattern before?”
Sometimes, just bringing awareness to the anxiety can cut down the frequency of the attacks. Once teens are comfortable thinking about their anxiety in this way, writing about it and talking about it openly, we can then approach mindfulness through coping skills and relaxation techniques.
I always tell teens that tackling anxiety takes preparation. Would you go into a math exam without studying? OR… Would you go into a tennis match without practice? The same goes for taking on anxiety. You have to be prepared. The log helps prepare them well before applying any mindfulness techniques.