Anxiety is the most common mental health issue faced by adolescents, college students and adults

Practicing mindfulness can help relieve anxiety among children, youth and adults.

Do you experience feelings of anxiety? If so, how does it tend to express itself in your mind and body? Does your thinking become rapid and spinning—or do you have difficulty concentrating? Do you notice muscle tension in your neck, shoulders or another part of your body? Do you feel fatigued, restless or “keyed up”? Do you have difficulty breathing or experience shortness of breath? Do you feel irritable—or do you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep? These are all examples of ways that anxiety can impact our mind, body and overall health and wellbeing.

While anxiety doesn’t typically feel very good, it is a very common, human and normal reaction to stress. Occasional feelings of anxiety that come and go and that are mild are a reality of the human experience for children, youth and adults. We might experience anxiety when faced with a new experience, before an important job interview or presentation—or before taking a test. In some ways, anxiety can actually be beneficial. For example, our feelings of anxiety may be sending us a message that helps us see that we are not emotionally or physically safe and that we need protection or care from ourselves or others. Feelings of anxiety may signal to us that we’re not living our lives in line with our values and perhaps we need to take action to make a change for the better.    

But for some, anxiety can become severe and overwhelming and can interfere with one’s ability to learn, work and take part in daily life. Anxiety is often fear-based and can be fueled by thoughts about hard situations that have happened in our past, fear that those things will happen again and worry about unknown things about the future.

Many mental health professionals are concerned about the increasing number of young people who experience overwhelming feelings of anxiety. For example, research indicates that anxiety is the number one mental health concern experienced by adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17. According to the National Institute of Health, 25.1 percent of teens aged 13 to 18 have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders.  And for many adolescents, their struggles with anxiety go with them when they go off to college.  According to Scott Becker, Ph.D., director of the Michigan State University Student Counseling Center, anxiety has surpassed depression as the number one mental health issue faced by today’s college students.

Anxiety, like other mental health issues, is often influenced by experiences of stress and may start with patterns established in childhood and adolescence. Anxiety can also be imitated and impacted by medications you’re taking for other things and is sometimes connected to physical health issues such as low-blood sugar or an overactive thyroid. Be sure you and your children see primary care providers and seek professional help if feelings of anxiety are persistent, severe and overwhelming.

In addition to seeking professional help when needed, we can all learn ways to navigate stress and anxiety so that it doesn’t get the best of us. One way to learn to do that is through the practice of mindfulness.

Research shows that the practice of mindfulness can relieve stress and anxiety related to fearful, anxious thoughts, chronic worrying and feelings of dread. Whether your feelings of anxiety are mild or overwhelming, practicing mindfulness can help you learn the regulation and relaxation skills you need to tolerate and navigate these feelings. For example, one of the most important things we can do is to just notice these feelings in our minds and bodies—acknowledge the feelings and name them for what they are—and then breathe and allow these feelings to come up and flow through us. As adults, these kinds of mindfulness practices and our own emotional resilience can also have impacts on our child’s development. Research indicates that the practice of mindfulness can strengthen our parenting skills and help promote positive psychological and emotional development in children and youth. 

For children, youth and adults, research suggests that the practice of mindfulness improves the immune system—as well as increases gray matter in the brain involved with memory processes, emotional regulation, empathy and perspective taking. When we practice formal and informal mindfulness in our daily lives, we’re more likely to be able access these skills and have the tools we need at our fingertips when we really need them. Practicing mindfulness when the stakes are low helps us to be able to remind our minds and bodies that we know how to relax and calm ourselves during intense times of anxiety, worry and stress.

Michigan State University Extension provides resources, workshops, webinars and programs to help adults and youth develop social and emotional skills and practice mindfulness through programs like Stress Less with Mindfulness and Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.

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