Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – few spaces left and I’m not doing it again!

Questions about anxiety #8: Is increased anxiety still a result of Covid?

A few of your recent questions referred to an increase in anxiety in school-aged people over the last couple of years.

Vicky has been working for five years in a secondary school as a Thrive Practitioner. She says,

“Each year I’ve noticed that anxiety is getting higher especially every new year 7 coming up. Do you think this is still an effect from covid?”

Part of Joanne’s question (which I’ll answer separately later) included: “I currently work with Primary School children and have seen a definite increase in anxiety over the past two years” and part of Karen’s question also referred to increased anxiety: “A lot of the young people in my school are anxious about things that, before, would not have been an issue such as refusing to go to class because the person they sit beside isn’t in or it’s a cover teacher.” I’ll answer those questions fully in later posts.

Before getting to the nub of Vicky’s question (and what we can do about it) there are a few things to flag up, to stop us jumping to faulty conclusions:

  1. We tend to see what we expect to see. This is confirmation bias and is a powerful influence on how we think. We keep being told that a) there’s increased anxiety especially in young people and b) that this could be Covid-related. Both things are highly believable and may indeed be true. But regardless of whether they are true, we will tend to notice anything that supports this belief and may not notice things that go against it.
  2. Anxiety is somewhat contagious (although anxiety disorders are not) and the anxieties around Covid were a widely shared experience. So, even if we could prove that anxiety is higher post-Covid than pre-Covid it would not necessarily be Covid itself more than the contagion of anxiety especially in a shared experience. (The effect is the same, though.)
  3. Anxiety can produce a chain reaction in susceptible people. I talk about worry chains and spirals in No Worries. So it’s entirely possible that the increase that many people experienced during and because of Covid has lingered and led to an increase in other anxiety.
  4. There is also the “cabin crew effect”, my term for how younger or less expert/experienced people take anxiety or reassurance cues from the older or more experienced people around them. And adults very often do express and display anxiety a lot nowadays, possibly more than before Covid because Covid was very stressful and the side-effects of the cost of living crisis have been very real and hard to deal with for many. We talk about it more, which has benefits and the opposite.
  5. It is very hard – possibly impossible – reliably to measure the anxiety we seem to see, let alone to measure what it is caused by. So we can really only make guesses about whether, if there is (as we seem to be noticing) an increase in anxiety, it is an effect from Covid.

It is entirely possible that if there is an increase in anxiety it is caused by a combination of things, such as:

  • More things to be anxious about (including Covid and the fear of future pandemics)
  • More anxious behaviour by adults, which young people see
  • More talk about anxiety
  • Less grasp of how to understand and then manage anxiety, in order to keep it under control and doing its job

And that last is the point of my work and particularly my new book, No Worries – How to deal with teenage anxiety. I make it very clear what anxiety is, what it’s for and why it’s a benefit; I show readers how to detect the signs of their own anxiety and understand why it’s nothing to be afraid of; and I provide well over 100 strategies for prevention, intervention, relaxation and distraction.

A bit of extra insight into worry chains or spirals

I mentioned anxiety/worry chains/spirals. I have just realised this is something I haven’t written about in my blog, although I often talk about it in parent talks and staff training days. I will rectify this later but, basically, once you’re in a worry state you’re more likely to worry about something else as well. Worries increase and trigger each other.

Vicky observed that the anxiety is especially high in each Year 7 cohort coming up to secondary school. This is likely to be because arriving at secondary school is an anxiety-increasing situation, regardless of Covid or anything else.  The worry chain effect helps explain how, since Year 7s will tend to seem and be more anxious, if anxiety is increasing generally (for whatever reason) it’s likely to be most noticeable in an already anxious year group.

And Karen said that “A lot of the young people in my school are anxious about things that, before, would not have been an issue such as refusing to go to class because the person they sit beside isn’t in or it’s a cover teacher.” Again, if they are anxious about something big, this will also increase anxiety in other, smaller things. So they might be very anxious about what’s going on in the world (or their homes), and this increases the likelihood that they will also display anxiety about small things.

(When I answer Karen’s question fully later I will give another reason why they are anxious about those specific examples she mentions.)

Are there any solutions to this increasing anxiety?

Yes. Everyone needs to read No Worries. I am not joking! We need to stop seeing all anxiety as negative and instead learn to appreciate its power and health as part of our human experience. Most importantly – because I’m sure you all already know that anxiety is healthy and appropriate (except when it crosses lines, which I’ll talk about in answer to another of your questions soon, “How can you tell that you have anxiety and aren’t just feeling anxious like a “normal” person?”) – we need to tach this to young people.

We need to be good cabin crew, to improve our control of our own anxiety and then teach those skills to young people. It’s our job. Not easy, for sure, but it’s manageable. we can really make a difference, which is what parents and teachers already do to the very best of their ability. Sometimes, though, we just need a bit of help.

No Worries gives you – and them – that help. All the wisdom and ideas are there, neatly offered in my trademark reassuring voice. I wrote it for you! (And myself…)

No Worries is published by Walker Books on Aug 3rd. Pre-order yours here. But why not include it in the beautiful Gift for a Teenager, available now?

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.


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