Anxious Nation is available to watch on Amazon.
If there was ever a buzz word to define the 2020s, it’s “anxiety.” And for those of us who’ve lived with it our entire lives or who are now raising kids with anxiety, frankly, we’re thankful that there is so much conversation happening about this very real topic. That’s why documentaries like Anxious Nation matter and why more parents and kids should see them—so they can learn more about what anxiety is and feel less alone in their struggles.
Anxious Nation—A Documentary for Teens, Tweens, and Parents
Anxious Nation follows the stories of several children and teens, including a 13-year-old girl named Sevi who experiences constant feelings of dread, a teenage boy named Noah whose bedtime routine as a young child would often take upwards of three hours, and Cooper, a young girl whose anxiety has manifested itself into motor tics. These and several other kids with various forms of anxiety disorders tell their stories—stories that for some meant showing symptoms as babies and toddlers. These children and teens tell their very raw stories of how they’ve navigated life, alongside their parents and loved ones, through the exhausting and challenging world of anxiety.
The format of Anxious Nation is particularly impactful because while yes, this educational documentary includes a seemingly endless list of experts, including Harold Koplewicz, M.D., President of Child Mind Institute and Lynn Lyons, LICSW, a psychotherapist, the documentary also spends equal time hearing from the children and teens who are living this reality every day.
A teenage girl named Nora tells of a time when, as a child, she couldn’t find her mother in the house and had a full-blown panic attack. Nora ended up punching her hand through a glass door as she searched for her mom. Nora says the root of her panic was fearing that “she needed me” and that “something was wrong,” but Nora couldn’t find her. In truth, Nora can reflect back on the incident and see that the entire episode escalated in less than a minute. And Nora’s mother was just on the phone upstairs.
Sevi explains that the type of anxiety disorder she has stems from multiple sources, making it very difficult to manage. “Feeling like I’m going to disappoint someone makes me very anxious,” she says. “Having my mom be mad at me makes me anxious. Having one of my friends be mad at me makes me anxious.”
And, Sevi’s mom also adds that the COVID pandemic was a huge anxiety trigger for Sevi. “The unknown is so challenging for an anxious child and that made COVID one of the hardest times for us,” her mom shares in Anxious Nation. “Sevi wanted assurances that everything was going to be okay and wanted certainty that I just couldn’t give her.”
Naiya has chronic digestive issues that impact her education and cause social embarrassment. These physical symptoms, not surprisingly, manifested into a social anxiety disorder that was only compounded by the anxiety in her gut.
Jonah describes his panic disorder, sharing that he’d scream for hours on end. For example, he once had a panic attack when the font size changed on an assignment and he couldn’t fit the entire essay on one page.
These are the stories of kids with anxiety, and if any of them sound familiar, chances are, your child struggles with anxious thoughts too.
Anxiety Is A Cult Leader
Psychotherapist Lynn Lyons, LICSW says that anxiety is like a cult leader. All parents—whether their kids have anxiety or not—are just trying to get through the day, go to work, get their kids fed, make sure homework is done, get them to bed at a reasonable hour, wake the up the next day, rinse, and repeat. But when anxiety is in control, they often learn to obey it and do whatever the anxiety says, just to survive and get to the next day.
“But the problem is, the more you listen to the cult leader, the stronger this thing gets,” Lyons explains. “That’s how cult leaders work. You are beholden. As long as we fall in line, follow the cult leader, everything is okay. But how do you pull that off? Worlds get smaller.”
Lynn Lyons goes on to explain what that might look like in a household where a child’s anxiety is in complete control. “The child determines what restaurant family is allowed to eat at. Parents have to go to bed at the same time as the child. Nobody is allowed to be in certain rooms of the house,” she says. “You’re not doing it on purpose. You’re not trying to be controlling, but the cult leader says, ‘Listen to what I’m saying or there’s going to be a price to pay.’ And parents don’t want to pay the price, understandably, and it gets stronger and stronger.”
Furthermore, Lyons adds in Anxious Nation, the anxiety in your household starts impacting others outside of your home. “You start demanding more. You start expecting other people to follow your cult leader too. And pretty soon the anxiety is determining what everyone does and what everyone experiences. It happens fast.”
Does this sound familiar? It does to me. My youngest child has struggled with anxious, negative thoughts and emotional outbursts since he was very young. And even today, at nearly 11 years old, bedtime can be a struggle. Changes in routine can be a struggle. He often struggles with health issues that we can attribute to anxiety. And yes, oftentimes my husband and I, as well as our other children, have felt beholden to the “cult leader,” desperately trying to just do whatever we needed to do to keep the anxiety symptoms at bay. Only they’re never really gone.
1. Empower kids by naming the anxiety and taking back control.
Lynn Lyons explains that an effective strategy is to “step into the feeling, name it, normalize it, and know what to do with it.” For example, kids can say, “Worry is named Fred. When Fred shows up, this is what Fred says. This is what Fred demands. And this is how we’re doing to respond to Fred.”
By stepping into the feeling, naming it, and deciding how we will respond to it, we can empower and educate kids about what is happening and how mental illness—in this case anxiety—works, rather than try to rearrange the world in order to accommodate it.
2. Anxiety thrives in isolation, so take away that power.
“In order for an adolescent to survive, they have to belong to another adolescent,” explains Dan Siegel, M.D., Executive Director of Mindsight Institute. “Belonging for the mind is like breathing for the body.” We know the value of ensuring our kids have a friend, but for a child with anxiety, that need can be even greater. Helping your child make friends isn’t easy—parents know that. But if your child isn’t connected to any peers, try other routes. Join a local community group at a church or the public library, or even privately reach out to some local parents who might have kids also looking for a friend.
Also, Dan Siegel suggests instilling a greater purpose in your child, particularly if they suffer from anxiety. Find a way to be of service to others, to nature, to the planet. Volunteer to work with animals or people in need and fight off that isolation. When you’re performing an act of service, you’re not isolated—you’re connected to the world.
3. As the parent, work on yourself and your own anxiety.
This is a big one that some parents may not want to hear. No one really knows whether anxiety is caused by nature or nurture, but make no mistake—we, as parents, impact our children’s wellbeing and mental state. Whether it’s because we passed down a genetic predisposition for anxiety or whether or anxious behavior influences their surroundings, it’s vital that we look inward at what we can do to cope with our own issues as we try to help our kids.
Not everyone even knows they have anxiety, and sometimes parents see signs in their kids and don’t realize that they exhibit many of the same symptoms themselves. Kenya Hameed, PsyD at the Child Mind Institute provides this analogy: “Our environment plays such a strong role. I think of it as genetics being the gun and the environment being the trigger.”
In Anxious Nation, Hameed also emphasizes that parents must care for themselves first so that they can then be present and healthy as they parent their children. “When you can’t manage your own experiences and your own thoughts, it makes it incredibly difficult to take care of somebody else,” she says. This one hits home for me, as I spend a great deal of time and energy working on my own anxiety in therapy so that I can better help my child through his. I need to do the work first so that I can be the whole, healthy, stable parent he needs.
4. Move the body!
Kenya Hameed, PsyD says in the documentary that “anxiety is energy, so put that energy elsewhere.”
Get your kids up and moving (whether they have anxiety or not—but especially if this is a struggle for them). Whether it’s playing on a team or simply taking the dog for a walk, any movement is good movement. Physical activity is an effective strategy to combat mental health struggles in general, anxiety included. Again, this is one way to teach your kids that they are empowered and in control. They can take the anxious energy in their bodies and put it into shooting hoops or swimming laps or even just doing jumping jacks in the living room.
5. Social media breaks, social media breaks, social media breaks.
We hear it time and time again—we have to break our children and teens away from social media to help their mental health and overall wellbeing. Consider these headlines shared in the documentary Anxious Nation if you’re still not sure:
“Teens are anxious and depressed after 3 hours a day on social media.” – JAMA Psychiatry Study
“Facebook documents how toxic Instagram is for teens.” – Wall Street Journal
“52% of teen girls who experience negative social comparison on Instagram said it was caused by images related to beauty.” – Facebook internal study 2020
“Instagram fuels eating disorders in young people.” – Facebook internal study 2020
“We make body image issues worse for 1 in 3 girls.” – Instagram internal memo
And it’s not just social media, but also understanding that constant stimulation thrown at kids today impacts them greatly. “Kids are more anxious today because they’re constantly being evaluated. There’s too much stimulation, but there’s limited bandwidth to process the bombardment of sounds and images that are coming at them,” explains Jeffrey Zeig, PhD, Director of the Milton H. Erickson Foundation.
And, Dr. Shefali Tsabary adds this profound statement as well: “Kids are bombarded with messages that ‘who you are is not enough.’ ‘You need to be more, you need to be skinnier and whiter and lovelier and cleverer.’ That’s what our children are bombarded by—a standard of beauty, a standard of intellect, a standard of perfectionism that is out of reach.”
And when you combine this unattainable ideal that’s overwhelming our children daily with an exhausting battle against anxiety, you have a child who is fighting every second of their life to simply live. Only sometimes the battle is invisible—existing only on the inside—and therefore, it might be hard to recognize.
Encourage a social media break or even a break from screens entirely and instead, let your child get lost in a good book or a puzzle. Or encourage them to create art—paint, draw, scrapbook, knit, or crochet. Take them outside, let them feel sunshine on their skin, embrace the nature around them, and enjoy all the good that some vitamin D and physical movement can do for their wellbeing.
6. Don’t wait to treat anxiety.
“On average, parents wait 2-8 years from the onset of symptoms before seeking professional help for their children’s anxiety,” says Harold Koplewicz, M.D., President of Child Mind Institute. And, he adds, that this waiting and hesitation to treat is shocking because parents and doctors would never wait nearly that long to treat anything else.
But when you hear about how it took three hours to get Noah to bed at night, or Jonah’s stories of uncontrollable panic attacks, or imagine the impact Naiya’s stomach issues had on her life, you realize that anxiety is very real. It impacts a child’s life as much, if not more so, than other mental or physical illnesses. And these kids desperately need help to treat it.
Documentaries like Anxious Nation are so valuable, especially when created in a way that reaches kids, teens, and adults simultaneously. While teens and parents can relate to the stories shared in this powerful video and feel connected with others as we all navigate a mental health crisis, they’ll also learn meaningful, tangible pieces of advice from experts who have dedicated their careers to helping families like theirs. Knowing that psychotherapy is expensive, waiting lists to even see an expert are growing, and for many, medications are either not an option right now or aren’t readily accessible, parents and their children can watch Anxious Nation and pull from it many helpful tips that might make their daily lives just a little bit easier. Or, at the very least, they can know, after watching, that their symptoms of anxiety are very real and that they are not alone.
Looking for additional resources on parenting teens? We love this book by Lisa Damour, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers, available on Amazon.
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