Taming the Anxiety Monster

By Dr. Josh Levisohn

You are in a crowded mall with your 4 year old at your side. You turn to look at something on a rack for just a moment. When you turn back, your daughter is no longer at your side. You cannot see her and when you call out her name desperately, you get no response. Your heart starts racing, your arteries constrict, you have a surge of adrenaline and nothing else in the world matters. You are beginning to panic. When you finally see your daughter off in the distance checking out the candy display, your relief is immediate, even as the aftereffects of the panic linger.

Imagine if you felt that surge of anxiety and panic every time you went to school. Or had to take a test. Or had to confront a new situation. Or had to speak with someone you didn’t know. Or even to your peers. And the panic did not abate as it does when a parent finds a lost child.

This is the way that children with anxiety disorders describe their existence on a regular basis. It is horrifying and heartbreaking. And for many who suffer from anxiety, it has a profound effect on the way that they live their lives.

A variety of direct, indirect and anecdotal evidence confirms that the last decade has seen a dramatic and frightening increase in the incidence of anxiety of all types, from mild to the most severe, in children and in young adults. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 30% of all children suffer some from some form of anxiety, including phobias. For most of the children, their anxiety causes them to make unwanted changes to their behavior, their schedule or their lifestyle. For approximately 15-20% of these cases, the anxiety becomes almost paralyzing and prevents them from leading normal lives, often requiring hospitalization and very intense treatment. Unfortunately, fewer than one out of every five children with anxiety disorders (of whatever severity) avail themselves of treatment and live with the feeling that the problem is in themselves and can never be ameliorated.

Talk to any guidance counselor in a day school and they will confirm that the anxiety epidemic affects children in Jewish schools at least at the same rates as in the general population. This is frightening both because the health of the children is at risk and because, for almost all of the more severe causes, it means that mission-appropriate, committed day school students cannot continue in the environment that they have known their whole lives and must continue in specialized schools or in schools with far fewer hours (and more time for treatment.)

As a former Head of School, I saw this trend first hand … and anguished each time another child had to deal with the double pain of suffering with their debilitating ailment and the loss of their school – 13 students in the last five years in my mid-size high school, more than three times as many students leaving for mental health reasons as in the previous five years.

Having stepped away from the intensity of the headship last June and now involved in a consulting practice, I have devoted some time to looking at this disturbing trend and bringing an awareness to our schools and parents to see if we can do something, anything, to make a dent in the pain caused by anxiety in our children.

Theories abound about why anxiety appears to have increased so significantly in recent times: the effects of 9-11 and terrorism; the availability of scary news in the media; parental worries and their own anxieties; the pressures of social media; other effects of digital technology; economic pressures due to the recession; lack of sleep; and a self-fulfilling prophecy of overdiagnosis. It seems likely that a combination of factors is at work and, in some cases, they are not just added causes but they feed off of each other in a way that makes the total stress far greater, alas, than the sum of the parts. In a separate article, I plan to examine these factors in greater depth.

For now, however, it is sufficient to recognize that almost all of these factors affect most of our children – but only some go on to have impairing levels of anxiety. Clearly, some children are more at risk than others and react very differently to stimuli than others.

There are some wonderful clinicians doing some amazing work with teenagers suffering from severe anxiety. Their work is intensive and exhausting and involves much of the family, but it does provide real hope for these teenagers.

My question as a concerned educator and long-time school administrator is whether we can identify children at risk much earlier and provide them early supports and intervention while they are 6, 7 or 8 so that, by the time they reach adolescence, they have learned the tools and resiliency necessary to manage their anxiety rather than letting their anxiety dominate them.

I think that the answer is yes. Not a simple yes but a hopeful yes. If we as educators bring the awareness to young parents and help them navigate (or create) programs for their younger children, perhaps we can nip enough cases in the bud so that our precious children can learn how to tame the anxiety monster and lead normal lives – as Jews, as Americans and as human beings.

To those who suffer from anxiety, my best wishes for a refuah shelemah (complete recovery). To the clinicians who help our children heal, hizku ve-imtzu (be strong and continue your great work). And to us as a community, let us continue to be aware of the debilitating costs of mental health issues and support those who work with our children.

Having served as Head of School of a Jewish day school for twelve years, Dr. Josh Levisohn is now a Lead Consultant at EduCannon Consulting. Please contact him at josh@educannonconsulting.com if you have suggestions, insights, opportunities or if you would like to collaborate on possible solutions. You can also contact him for a footnoted version of this article.