Anxiety is a word that finds its way into our daily vocabulary now more than ever. Especially in our present circumstance—facing multiple unknowns due to the Coronavirus—we are more aware of anxiety in our everyday life. In the past 12 months, we have normalized talking about fear and discomfort relating to social situations, our sense of the unknown, and school or work challenges.
Despite this progress, what are areas that still need addressing?
Both adults and adolescents can struggle with anxiety. Still, adolescents may be less likely to bring up their fears or refer themselves for any kind of assessment related to emotional concerns. Many of the challenges of the Coronavirus have fallen on their shoulders and directly affected their way of life. So, how have teens adapted? How does their anxiety present itself, and as concerned parents, what should we be looking for?
This article will address anxiety symptoms to be on the lookout for and discuss a critical area of growing concern: sports anxiety.
What is anxiety, and what should we be looking for?
Anxiety is a typical human emotion. While many of us consider it to be a negative emotion, it contains adaptive functions as well. Anxiety helps us to recognize when there is danger and motivates our drive to succeed.
However, when this stress interferes with our social, emotional, and physical functioning regularly, it transforms into something that needs additional attention and treatment.
In addition to fear about social situations, we can also think of anxiety as pressure to succeed, whether in school or extracurricular activities. Performance anxiety and sports anxieties are growing concerns for adolescents and relatively new fields of study. Performance or sports anxiety may be difficult to notice as symptoms can present with physiological, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms.
Performance anxiety at school
A student who never raises their hand in class and who does not volunteer to do any sort of public speaking may appear at first glance to be unmotivated, uninterested, or even lazy. We must know to look deeper at these signs, as this student may suffer from anxiety that is crippling. The idea of public speaking in their mind could lead to catastrophic embarrassment. While these are examples of behavioral characteristics, we must also pay close attention to concentration, memory, and attention—all cognitive features of anxiety.
Physiological symptoms—like flushed skin, sleeping problems, nausea, headaches, and sometimes even pain—are also key indicators that something is awry. Suppose a student visits the school nurse complaining of stomach aches every time that student has a test planned. In that case, we must think about those stomach aches within a framework related to performance anxiety.
With youth athletes, concerned parents need to pay attention to what we can consider “sports anxiety.” The field of sports psychology is growing, and it has allowed more in-depth research into the minds of young athletes and the mental pressures that come along with playing sports—many times even more significant than the physical ones. Sports psychologists have discovered that it seems the before and after of the game seems to be more anxiety-provoking than the game itself. The reasons for this can include:
- Having an audience (Especially one of parents, friends, and family who want to see the athlete succeed)
- Fear of disappointing others (What if I miss the last shot to tie the game and let down my team? What if I don’t enjoy the game like I used to and want to do something else instead?)
- Fear of injury (What if I get hurt and cannot play the rest of the season?)
- Post-game analysis (What if I messed up on a play and the coach talks about it in front of everyone?)
In our post-coronavirus world, now that sports are no longer taken for granted, and that many parents have made significant adjustments to their lives for their adolescents to continue playing (some families have made cross-country moves) the pressure these young athletes face has only increased.
What can we do?
As concerned parents, there are many options to address performance and sports anxiety with our teens.
From a practical perspective, we can connect them with a provider to teach them relaxation training, including mindfulness or meditation. Teaching breathing techniques is an integral part of relaxation training. If the teen has a cell phone, they can download several applications to assist with relaxation and breathing to practice independently.
Clinicians can also use systematic desensitization with teens to become more comfortable with tests and public performances. Practicing giving a speech in front of just the practitioner, then a few more people, then a few more until the student can manage the worry that comes with speaking in front of groups. By the same token as practicing speaking in front of others, coaches can “ramp up” the pressure in practice by having families stay to watch, playing loud music, or playing cheering noises. These can emulate what it will be like during a game when there is a crowd, high pressure, and many potential distractions.
Mental health professionals can also utilize techniques of cognitive-behavioral therapy, including reframing thoughts and positive self-talk.
One of the most critical ways mental health professionals can help students with performance or sports anxiety is to instruct parents, teachers, coaches, or other faculty on how to address these adolescents with anxiety. It is essential to let these groups know:
- The characteristics of anxiety
- The different behavioral, cognitive, and physiological signs related to anxiety that they may notice in their adolescent
- What triggers or increases anxiety
- How mental health professionals can help
- How their mentality about sports can affect their children
As parents, it is pertinent to remember that anxiety does not always come from a logical place. Explaining to an adolescent that life will go on or having a “what’s the worst that could happen?” mentality when talking with someone who has anxiety will not help. It is imperative that parents, teachers, coaches, and others validate the adolescent’s feelings, whether they can truly understand how the adolescent is feeling or not. Mocking or saying that feeling anxious about something is silly minimizes the individual and may make them less comfortable sharing their feelings of insecurity or worry.
Teen Counseling at Pure Health Center
Overall, the fields of performance and sports anxiety are being studied to better understand the challenges that our teens face. Although adolescents will continually need to adapt and cope with the symptoms that anxiety can bring, it is also up to mental health professionals, parents, teachers, and coaches to do their part in managing these anxieties.
Get connected with us today to talk about the challenges facing your teen, and how, as their parent, you can move from their biggest fan to their greatest ally.