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A Spike in Anxiety as Schools Reopen

Teens with social anxiety disorder were relieved by online learning. Now what?

Key Points

  • Now that school is reopening in some areas, students with social anxiety are worried about returning to class.
  • Interacting with others can create intense and irrational anxiety. Such anxiety can interfere with general functioning
  • Here are some ideas to reduce mitigate the fears.
Kat Smith on Pexels
Source: Kat Smith on Pexels

Many families are beginning to feel hopeful as we start to return to work and school. Yet at the same time, teenagers, whose developmental stage is dependent on socialization, are justifiably worried about the major readjustments that the resumption of school entails.

In a previous post, I pointed out that today’s adolescents were already experiencing an epidemic of mental health disorders even prior to the pandemic. Recent national data from the CS Mott Hospital in Michigan reveals that 46 percent of parents report symptoms of new or worsening psychological problems since the beginning of the pandemic a year ago. Therefore, it is critically important for parents and teachers to now closely monitor the psychological functioning of children and adolescents. Depression, generalized anxiety, substance abuse, suicidal thinking, and other problems are all increasing.

Social Interaction Can Create Intense Anxiety for Some People
For teens who suffer from social anxiety disorder (SAD)—over 11 percent of females and 7 percent of males—the situation is even more complicated, as interacting with other students creates massive, irrational anxiety that interferes with their functioning. They are extremely fearful of negative judgment and humiliation and often slip into patterns of avoidance and restriction of activities. We now know that avoidance is a key understandable but counterproductive reaction to social anxiety. Every time a teen feels anxiety and then evades it, the anxiety is reduced and avoidance behavior is powerfully reinforced. In my practice, I have seen students who, in contrast to many others, were very relieved to be taking classes virtually because they could avoid many of their social fears. This pattern developed: go online, see the class, feel anxious by the presence of others, sign off, anxiety is reduced. This paradigm that reinforces avoidance and isolation has lasted in many cases, for over a year. The return to school, then, is likely to lead to a spike in anxiety that will interfere with relationships, development, and learning.

Parents and teachers can help students with SAD by first, understanding this disorder. Validation of a teen’s fears is extremely important, rather than minimizing the problem, even as an attempt at reassurance. SAD is not just shyness, it can be debilitating in teens and often leads to depression as well.

Here Are Some Ways to Allay Those Fears
Once the pattern is identified, we can disrupt it and lessen the anxiety before students return to school. Learning to control breathing, deeply and slowly, is always a useful first step. Brainstorming coping strategies, other than avoidance, including mindfulness, can also prevent or mitigate social anxiety. Rehearsing reentry, with exposure to other students in vivo, through social media, or virtually, can help. For example, a teen could watch a video of a class, including other students, and implement new strategies. Or make a quick run to a nearby store. Students can also begin to practice giving oral reports by video recording and reviewing the video at a later time. If they are not in treatment then guidance and accurate feedback from a supportive parent or another relative, teacher, or family friend are usually necessary to correct overly negative self-judgment.

In addition, especially if SAD continues to interfere with daily activities, cognitive behavior therapy sometimes in combination with medication, is an evidence-based, effective treatment.

Pediatricians are usually able to facilitate a referral to a mental health professional.

The world may well be opening up but we have all paid a steep price and need to proceed with care, especially for our teens who have suffered so much.

References… Vol. 38, Issue 2, March 15, 2021

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