Experts say anxiety disorders in kids are up, but we can do something about it

SEATTLE -- The common thread that binds so many of us is how we feel.

And in this big busy world in which we live, most of us know what anxiety feels like.

But anxiety is perfectly healthy. It’s what keeps us safe, prepared and alert.

The kind of anxiety we are talking about is different.

“Rates of anxiety disorder diagnosis have increased in recent years,” Dr. Kendra Read of Seattle Children’s said.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue among children and teens.

There is social anxiety when a child is excessively self-conscious, and social interactions bring about irrational thoughts. There are specific phobias, meaning an uncontrollable fear of an object or situation. Generalized anxiety is another one in which a kid constantly worries or strives for perfection.

One of my specialty areas is selective mutism, which is an anxiety in which youth don’t speak because they are anxious,” Dr. Read said.

Dr. Read says kids as young as 3 years old are struggling internally.

Some of them may be mistaken as shy or angry.

A report by the Child Mind Institute says 80% of kids who have an anxiety disorder never receive treatment.

The documentary "Angst" aims to change that.

"Angst" dives into the different forms of anxiety disorders and the physiological symptoms.

In the documentary, kids with anxiety disorders talk about how they have a hard time breathing and how their vision gets blurry.

"Angst" highlights the functions of the brain that plays a role in people shutting down.

Scilla Andreen is the filmmaker behind "Angst."

“When it first screened in schools and the kids would go home, the parents would call and say, 'What happened at school today? My kid is telling me all this stuff,'" Andreen said.

Through the nine-month journey of interviewing teens, doctors and experts, Andreen had a life changing epiphany.

“What a relief it is to talk about it openly,” Andreen said.

Andreen says she never realized she was struggling with social anxiety all of her life, recalling how things like arriving to school late as a child used to paralyze her.

“I was terrified to walk into the classroom late, and then I would get dizzy because I couldn’t find an empty seat,” Andreen said.

Child Mind Institute says children who have anxious parents are five times more likely to form an anxiety disorder.

But there are other factors besides genetics.

There are complicated factors like personality, life events and environment that can bring about anxiety disorders.

Now, experts say there is a direct correlation between a high emotional investment in social media and anxiety. Our kids are always plugged in, constantly bombarded with influences that are not good for them.

It’s a conversation many schools are facing head-on.

“We would love to hear from parents and students tell us what you think,” parent Sarah Waywouth said.

In April, a packed auditorium of students and parents at St. Benedict Catholic School in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood gave their full attention during a screening of not "Angst," but the film "LIKE."

"LIKE," also created by Andreen, is encouraging families to use social media in moderation.

“Personally I don’t have social media but I know a lot of my friends do,” said one student.

“I think there is an opportunity to set curriculum around social media in schools,” St. Benedict parent Dale Levitzke said.

This kind of community therapy is what we need more of.

“It was great to see both kids and adults talking about it, that we are all in this together trying to figure it out I think,” St. Benedict parent Annie Larson Quinn said.

"LIKE" talks about #FOMO, or the fear of missing out, but what would it be like to replace that with #JOMO, the joy of missing out?

Clara Krause, a student at Woodinville High School, says she’s trying it out.

“I leave my phone on the lunch table before I go get my lunch and wait in line and so I have to force myself to be ok just standing there,” Krause said.

Krause is in the film "LIKE," and she says it’s hard to admit she is addicted to social media.

“I see a lot more quieter people now because that’s a world they can put themselves in and they don’t have to deal with anything going on around them,” Krause said.

And not dealing with what’s going on around you is the worst thing kids with anxiety disorders can do.

“We see those kids 5 years down the line or so, and things have gotten so much worse,” Dr. Read said.

Expert say untreated anxiety disorders can often lead to depression and substance abuse later in life.

One of the most effective treatments is what’s called exposure therapy.

Experts say facing your fears is the best way to take back control of your life, something Andreen lives every day.

“I have faith that I will get through it, that’s the difference now,” Andreen said.

Dr. Read says when she treats kids with anxiety disorders it is not about getting rid of the issue but slowly teaching children how to face their fears. She says eventually many of them will conquer the disorders.

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