Skip to content

Tag: stress

Year 12: Welcome to the Hunger Games

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph 16/7/16 and online at RendezView.

13718599_10153808786178105_8852330545833453667_n

Since when have the final years of school transformed into a blood sport, apropos The Hunger Games?

School days used to be traditionally lauded as the best days of our lives — but those in Year 12 preparing for their final examinations feel more like they’re in a relentless competition that only the strongest can survive.

I’ve worked in education all my career and my daughter is doing her HSC this year. When I talk to teens about how they feel about their final years of schooling, I can’t help but think something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong.This is what some of them told me:

“I am taking antidepressants, going to counselling and drinking alcohol heavily… I’ve also recently been diagnosed with chronic fatigue.”

“The whole system has made me lose my love of learning… I used to be a chilled person but now I have anxiety and am on prescription medication for a tremor I have developed as a result.”

“I recently dropped out due to extreme stress. It got to the point where I was even trying meth to take my mind off the HSC.”

“At my school (a private boys school) because we have been exposed to alcohol for some years already, my friends have decided to medicate with drugs; weed, cocaine, caps (a form of MDMA) and during examination period, Ritalin, and other ‘smart drugs’. My friends aren’t exactly the smartest, nor do they have the same pressures as me (my brother was a high achiever and I’m a school leader). They… use it because they feel if they do, they can compete with the rest of the year, and ultimately try to increase their ranks, in an attempt to get the best possible ATAR.”

And it’s not just the stories of drinking and drugs that are deeply concerning.

There are teens who tell me they often think about dropping out — not only of school, but of life. Others who tell me they ask to be excused in class so they can lock themselves in the school toilets and cry. There are those who were made to give up sports and hobbies they loved (one girl was made to sell her beloved horse) so they’d have more time to spend on studying.

“It feels like all I am now is a brain my school and parents want to cram facts in to so I can spit them back again later. But I used to have a heart too.”

These insights might shock those who don’t know any Year 12 students. But they won’t shock educators or those who work in mental health. A 2015 UNSW study found that 42 per cent of the Year 12 students surveyed from a representative sample of Sydney schools had anxiety levels high enough to be of clinical concern.

Many of my teaching colleagues lament both the tears and panic attacks they witness, and the fact that due to the amount of content they must get through to ensure students are ready for exams, there isn’t more time allocated to stress management.

Dr Prue Salter, who works in schools teaching study skills and techniques to help students cope with the academic demands placed on them, despairs of the current system.

“All the research shows there is immense pressure placed on students in the final years and for what? It is an outdated system, measuring outdated skills such as their ability to memorise,” Salter says. “We need to reassess what we teach, and how we assess that. It’s criminal what we do to these kids.”

For now, I’ll hug my daughter often. Try to be patient when she procrastinates for days watching Gilmore Girls. And I’ll help her realise she can never be defined by a mark.

High School, High Anxiety: How to support teens with anxiety disorders

Last week’s inspiring post by Jane Caro on overcoming an anxiety disorder struck a chord with many readers who have been through the same thing. Many of our girls are facing this issue, too. In fact, 15% of people aged 16-24 are affected by an anxiety disorder. So this week, we’re taking a look at the causes and symptoms of anxiety — and most importantly, what we can do to support girls who are dealing with it.

What is anxiety disorder?

We have all experienced anxiety. For you, the pounding heartbeat, flushed face, dry mouth, sweatiness and feeling of dread might hit before you have to give a speech. Or perhaps it’s going to a job interview or sitting for an exam that makes you feel shaky, short of breath and queasy.

This is a normal reaction to stress. It’s your body’s fight or flight response, and humans have been experiencing it since we lived in caves: in the face of a threat, adrenaline is released, ramping up your body to either defend yourself or run. Since then the threats have changed from sabre-toothed tigers to things like impending deadlines and public speaking engagements, but our body’s reaction is the same. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. According to Youth BeyondBlue, “a certain amount of anxiety is good for us, as it gets us hyped up to perform at our best.”

It becomes a problem, though, when that feeling remains long after the stressful situation has passed. For a girl with anxiety disorder, it pervades her whole life and continues for weeks, months or longer. The anxious feelings tend to be a more intense and overwhelming. The anxiety may interfere with her daily life, as she avoids situations that are likely to trigger her anxiety. Vanessa, who had an anxiety disorder for several years during high school and overcame it at age 17, describes her experience this way:

I would be standing on the bus coming home from school, and boom, my heart would start racing so fast that I was convinced I was about to have a heart attack and die. Obviously that didn’t happen — but instead of being relieved, I thought that this must be how insanity starts. I was worried I would just slip away and lose all grip on reality. Some days it was too hard to go to school, because I thought everyone could tell I was going crazy. It was a vicious cycle, because those thoughts only fed the anxiety.

Anxiety can take several forms:

  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder — continual worrying about aspects of everyday life such as school, work, relationships and health
  • Social Anxiety — crippling fear of being judged by others in social situations
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder — obsessive fears leading the continual repetition of an action or ritual — e.g., a fear of germs leading to the frequent washing of hands
  • Panic Disorder — periods of intense fear and anxiety lasting from a few minutes up to half an hour
  • Phobia — fear and avoidance of a particular thing or situation — e.g., heights, enclosed spaces, dogs, etc.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — periods of anxiety, flashbacks or bad dreams related to a traumatic experience

What causes anxiety?

Stressful situations such as parents breaking up, family conflicts, being bullied or abused, or going through a relationship breakup can  trigger an anxiety disorder. And genes can play a role, so girls may be more prone if other people in the family have gone through it.

Perfectionism also seems to be a common thread for many people with an anxiety disorder. Adelaide psychologist Dr Michele Murphy said in July’s edition of Madison, “Of course perfection is impossible, so anxiety may result from a sense of failure and the exhaustion of attempting to attain unrealistic standards.” Hmm…attempting to attain unrealistic standards, now doesn’t that sound familiar? Given the constant barrage of media, pop culture and social messages telling girls that they aren’t thin enough, or hot or pretty or popular enough, or they aren’t achieving enough, it’s  little wonder that so many of them feel overwhelmed and anxious. (And their mothers, too!)

Bella, who is 20 and had anxiety throughout her teens, always performed well academically, and this became a major focus of her anxiety:

In the subjects I got my best marks in, I was a wreck for weeks before exams. I couldn’t sleep and I had this dread of what would happen if I didn’t get the mark everyone was expecting me to. It was like my life was going to come to an end. Now I know that fear was out of all proportion — but at the time, I couldn’t think about anything else.

Signs of an anxiety disorder

It’s normal for everyone to experience a certain amount of anxiety surrounding stressful events, but if a girl shows these signs and they are impacting her everyday life and activities, she may have an anxiety disorder:

  • fast heartbeat
  • pain or a tight feeling in the chest
  • shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  • tingling sensation or pins and needles
  • feeling light-headed or dizzy
  • trembling, shaking or being easily startled
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • insomnia and tiredness
  • constant worrying, about big or small concerns
  • fear or avoidance of certain places, situations or things
  • compulsive actions such as hand washing

What you can do to help

If you believe that your child may have anxiety, the first step is to speak to her about her feelings. Yes, you might meet resistance or even anger. Embarrassed by the thoughts that are going through her head, a girl may try to suffer in silence. Or she may have trouble finding the words to describe the feeling of dread that’s hanging over her. Here are some pointers to get the conversation started and keep it going (adapted from Youth Beyondblue‘s advice for parents and caregivers):

  • Try to stay calm and  relaxed.
  • Set aside a good time to chat quietly without distractions, and give her all of your attention.
  • Ask open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.
  • Resist the urge to jump in with advice straightaway. Instead, focus on acknowledging her feelings.
  • Avoid making judgments or saying things like “Snap out of it” or “That’s silly”, as this only shames and doesn’t help solve the problem.
  • Try not to take it personally if she can’t fully open up to you about her anxious feelings, as some girls find it easier to talk with a neutral professional.
Treatments
These suggestions made by psychologists for curbing anxiety may sound almost ridiculously simple, but they really can be effective:
  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet.
  • Get a good night’s sleep.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Try relaxing activities such as yoga, tai chi or meditation.

Also seek advice from a professional, because if it is left untreated, anxiety may escalate rather than subside. Your family doctor is a good starting point, and he or she may suggest a specialist or a counsellor. There are a range of treatments, including medication, relaxation techniques and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which equips girls to challenge unrealistic, negative thoughts and fears and replace them with a more realistic and positive outlook.

In Vanessa’s case, a rapid heart rate and shortness of breath meant she saw multiple doctors and was even admitted to the cardiac ward of a hospital before a switched-on doctor set aside her medical chart and instead asked her about her thoughts and feelings, and diagnosed an anxiety disorder:

It was the hugest relief that someone had put a name to what I was feeling and to know I wasn’t going crazy. He got me in to see a psychiatrist, who taught me breathing and relaxation techniques and CBT. As an adult, in times of stress I have the skills to manage anxiety so that it doesn’t take hold. Having an anxiety disorder was awful — but I don’t regret it, because I think that learning to take charge of it has made me a stronger person today.
Resources
  • Youth BeyondBlue has fact sheets; advice for parents, caregivers and kids; and a comprehensive checklist of anxiety symptoms. Their helpline in Australia is 1300 22 4636.
  • Reachout provides great articles and resources on anxiety in young people.
  • Lifeline Australia’s number is 13 11 14. Lifeline New Zealand is 0800 543 354.
  • Kids Help Line Australia is 1800 55 1800.

Rage and despair: Positive, helpful ways to support girls in crisis

Trigger warning: This blog post contains references to suicide. If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or behaviour, seek help immediately. These help lines are open 24 hours a day:
Australia
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
New Zealand
Lifeline: 0800 543 354

All of us at Enlighten have been heartbroken to see a number of media reports recently of teens taking their own lives. Cath Manning, one of Enlighten’s Victoria workshop presenters, is concerned about the high rates of depression and suicide in her area. Interviewed along with Steve Biddulph this week by her local media, Cath made this great point:

I think we sometimes forget that teen girls are going through the same things we went through when we were growing up, however, today there is even more pressure on them due to the relentless media images and messages they are bombarded with, and the added complications with social media. Of course, social media is here to stay, and there really are great benefits that come with that, but young girls just need to be given the tools to engage with the medium in a positive, helpful way.

Positive — that’s the key. There are positive things we can all do to help our kids cope. We can listen and look for the signs that all may not be well in their world, and we can offer our support. Due to the recent media coverage of teen suicides, a lot of parents and teachers have been asking my advice, so this seems a good time to share an excerpt from my book for parents, The Butterfly Effect, on how to identify and help teen girls in crisis. For the teen girls in your life, I have also written a version of the book specifically for them, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo. Both are available for purchase here.

Rage and Despair: Suicide

What many people who try to take their lives share is a sense of being trapped in a stressful or painful situation, a situation that they are powerless to change. Having depression or a mental illness raises a person’s risk of suicide. Stressful life events or ongoing stressful situations may fuel feelings of desperation or depression that can lead to suicide attempts. Examples of these stresses include the death of a loved one, divorce or a relationship breakup, a child custody dispute, settling in to a blended family, financial trouble, or a serious illness or accident. Any kind of abuse – physical, verbal or sexual – increases the risk. Substance abuse by any member of a family affects the other members of the family and can lead to suicidal feelings either directly or indirectly, through the loss of income and social networks or trouble with the law.

Bullying needs to be taken seriously as it has been known to make teens try to take their own life. Also, teens are right in the middle of forming their own individual identities and a major component of that is their sexuality. For a teenager who is questioning their sexual preference or gender, the pressure to be like everyone else, the taunting they receive because they clearly are not, or their own guilt and confusion can become unbearable. A relationship breakup can be a trigger for suicide in some teens. As adults, we have the ability to look at the bigger picture and know that in years to come, a teenage breakup will not seem anywhere near as important as it does at the time. A teenage girl, on the other hand, may not yet have the maturity to see beyond the immediate pain. If she seems unduly distressed about a breakup, pay attention. Another trigger for teen suicide is the recent suicide of someone close to them, or the anniversary of a suicide or death of someone close to them, so these are times when girls may need extra support.

Suicide is hard to talk about. It is almost taboo, simply too painful to touch on. But silence can be deadly. Often the parents of a teen girl at risk of suicide do not ask her the tough question of whether she is planning to take her own life. In part they may be in a state of denial, which is only human – after all, no parent wants to imagine that their daughter feels suicidal. They may also have a fear that seems to be ingrained in our culture: that if they mention suicide to their depressed or distressed daughter, they will be putting the idea in her head. But experts in adolescent mental health agree that it is more than okay to speak directly to your daughter about suicide. ‘Parents are often worried that by asking they may make matters worse. Well, I have never known a child to suicide because someone asked whether they were thinking about it,’ says child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Brent Waters.

Another unhelpful myth about suicide is that a teen who talks about suicide is simply seeking attention and won’t actually take her life. In fact, four out of five young people who commit suicide tell someone of their intentions beforehand. Besides, I have never understood the point of making a distinction between attention seeking, a cry for help or a genuine intention to commit suicide. Even if a teen is not actually going to go through with a plan to take her life, if she is distressed enough to cry out for help, her voice needs to be heard and she needs our support.

What you can do

Number one: if anyone – child, adolescent or adult – says something like ‘I want to kill myself’ or ‘I’m going to kill myself’, seek help straightaway. Remove anything they might be tempted to use to kill themselves with and stay with them. Dial 000 in Australia or 111 in New Zealand or a crisis line. The following phone counselling services are available 24 hours a day:

Australia

  • Lifeline: 13 11 14
  • Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
  • Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22

New Zealand

  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Another valuable thing you can do to help someone you fear is having suicidal thoughts is to listen. These pointers are adapted from the Victorian Government’s excellent ‘Youth suicide prevention – the warning signs’ on www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au:

  • Listen and encourage her to talk
  • Tell her you care
  • Acknowledge her feelings
  • Reassure her
  • Gently point out the consequences of her suicide, for her and the people she leaves behind
  • Stay calm; try not to panic or get angry
  • Try not to interrupt her
  • Try not to judge her
  • Don’t overwhelm her with too much advice or stories about your own experiences

Suicide warning signs

  • Loss of interest in activities she used to enjoy
  • Giving away her prized possessions
  • Thoroughly cleaning her room and throwing out important things
  • Violent or rebellious behaviour
  • Running away from home
  • Substance abuse
  • Taking no interest in her clothes or appearance
  • A sudden, marked personality change
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and her usual activities
  • A seeming increase in her accident proneness, or signs of self-harm
  • A change in eating and sleeping patterns
  • A drop in school performance, due to decreased concentration and feelings of boredom
  •  Frequent complaints about stomach aches, headaches, tiredness and other symptoms that may be linked to emotional upsets
  • Rejection of praise or rewards
  • Verbal hints such as ‘I won’t be a problem for you much longer’ or ‘Nothing matters anyway’
  • Suddenly becoming cheerful after a period of being down, which may indicate she has made a resolution to take her life

 
(Heart image by Seyed Mostafa Zamani, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

Adios Supergirl

Many girls I work with tell me they are stressed — really stressed. They feel exhausted and overwhelmed. They have headaches, trouble sleeping, chronically tight muscles, fatigue and lack of appetite or weight gain, which are recognised signs of stress.

Why do our young women feel such debilitating pressure?

I believe many teen girls are suffering from the Supergirl epidemic. They feel they must be smart, popular, thin and attractive, all while displaying a Paris Hiltonesque worldliness. American writer Courtney Martin in her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters sums up the modern girl’s dilemma this way:

We have the ultimate goal of effortless perfectionism.

The reality is that striving for perfection is actually unachievable, let alone exhausting.

Many girls desperately fear making mistakes, believing they cannot let down their guard for even one moment. For my upcoming book, The Butterfly Effect, my interviews with girls gave me valuable insight:

I worry so much about getting things wrong in class. What will people think of me if I do? If I don’t know something, I pretend I do so the teacher won’t think less of me. Everyone thinks I am such a great student and that learning comes easily to me — and I do get good marks, but I feel sick sometimes thinking about how long I will need to keep up this effort for.  — Joanne, 14

The worst thing about being a teen girl is people condemning you when you fall when, in fact, you only just tripped and learned something. — Yan, 16

If I make a mistake I want to cry. I hate that I am a big failure. But you can’t let anyone know you feel like that so you just shrug it off and go, ‘whatever’. But I replay my mistakes over and over in my head later. — Lucy, 15

The message we need to send our girls is that while they can do anything, they do not have to do it all at once, nor do they have to get it right every time.

We can serve as positive role models by refusing to buy into the hype that we need to be “Yummy Mummys” who can do it all. This may mean letting our own guard down and setting aside our perfectionist tendencies. Amelia Toffoli, the Principal at St Brigid’s College Lesmurdie, one of Enlighten’s Western Australian client schools, offers this great advice:

A mother should share personal failures as well as successes and explain to her daughter what she may have learnt from mistakes. It gives daughters hope that they too can move on from a poor choice.

Another angle is to create opportunities for girls to engage in exploration and self-discovery, and pursue activities that make them feel good — even if they won’t result immediately in a concrete reward such as good marks or acclaim.  In a May 2009 article on teen girls and perfectionism, a teacher in the United States, Jamie Donohoe, shared his favorite assignment that he gives his English students: to fulfil a small secret dream, something the student always wanted to do but never dared to for fear of failure or embarrassment. I love this!

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that Enlighten Education’s Chill Out workshops are increasingly popular with schools. We involve girls in practical, fun techniques that can help alleviate the physical symptoms of stress. For instance, positive visualisation helps girls develop new, more positive self-talk so they can respond calmly and optimistically to life’s inevitable challenges and setbacks. This is something we perhaps all could benefit from. We cannot always control the events that we experience, but we can control how we respond.

Do you know of any other good ideas for helping girls move beyond perfectionism?

Subscribe

Follow this blog

Get every new post delivered right to your inbox.

Skip to toolbar