Anxiety is a normal human emotion, we know we are feeling anxious when we experience tension in our bodies, negative thoughts, and increased heart rate. When we feel anxious, we know something else is going on and so we call it a secondary emotion. Examples would be before an exam, attending a social gathering when we don’t know people well or when we hear bad news about a loved one’s health. We can work this out and understand that it’s our body’s way of alerting us to a stressful situation. Often, talking to someone about it will be enough for the anxiety to subside and for our brains to soothe ourselves back to feeling calmer.
In addition, sometimes anxiety can escalate, and it becomes a problem rather than a normal response to a single event or thought. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is recognised by psychologists and psychotherapists and occurs when there are multiple triggers which can be quite nebulous and hard to identify. Symptoms will include restlessness, feeling tired, difficulty concentrating, feeling irritated, tension in the body and poor sleep. It’s a debilitating condition and requires careful diagnosis to understand the root or origin of the anxiety.
For children and young people growing up during the COVID-19 pandemic, GAD is a real possibility. An insidious feeling of fear, coming from family members, school and media, seeped through to everyone, worldwide. Some adults who had the cognition to rationalise their way through the emotional rollercoaster, could form narratives to help them through that unknown territory – and some couldn’t. But the developing brain of a child relies heavily on other people to help them learn how to self-soothe as they grow up.
The invisible threat that was COVID-19 caused a fear of the outside world. Hypervigilant cleaning and mask-wearing were behaviours that were alien to all of us but were understood. To a growing child this looked like normal life. When life gradually went back to normal for most people these children were left with shifting messages. We attempt to provide children with routine, rules and structure that allow them to feel safe. This switching of the rules added to the uncertainty and promoted an additional belief that rules can change at any moment – therefore making them feel unsafe.
The adage of putting your own oxygen mask on before helping someone else did not apply during the pandemic. We were all in it together and as much as we tried to reassure others, we cannot deny that we, ourselves were also struggling. Now we live in a post-pandemic world, we can start to do the work of repairing the damage that was done in terms of the trauma and fear that was instilled in our children and young people.
Identifying the symptoms of anxiety can be difficult if the source of the anxiety is unknown. Children raised during the pandemic will not state that the pandemic has caused them anxiety and they will struggle to find the words to describe what’s going on. The first indication will be physical symptoms – many people find themselves at the GP worried about a heart condition because they have palpitations, when in fact it is a physical symptom driven by emotions. If a child hasn’t slept well and is feeling irritable, we may choose to put them to bed earlier in an attempt to solve the issue.
Be alert to the symptoms of anxiety and be curious about the child’s inner world. Perhaps they can draw a picture of how they are feeling, or for older children write a song or a poem. Finding creative ways to express how we feel is always useful and often enlightening for all parties. Start a conversation about the pandemic and how things have changed now – what has been noticed and, what parts do they miss? Anxiety brought on by the pandemic may also be a yearning for more family time or time at home, away from school or unwanted attention. The key to healing from this is to listen to the other person and help them unravel the messages they received during that crucial time of development; open-mindedness is a critical skill when supporting their recovery.