This episode of “Mad in the Family” focuses on how adolescents can better manage and even overcome anxiety—something the news media and our own eyes tell us so many young people these days are struggling with.
Our guest is Jodi Aman, LCSW, a psychotherapist and coach who has more than 20 years of experience working with children, their parents, and helpers. A graduate of Columbia University School of Social Work, she has studied and taught Narrative Therapy around the globe and speaks to conferences, schools, and universities. Jodi is also trained in using complementary and alternative modalities including Ayurveda, mindfulness, yoga, energy healing, and herbalism.
A TEDx speaker and YouTuber, she is also a best-selling author. Her books include You 1, Anxiety 0, and most recently Anxiety….I’m So Done With You: A Teen’s Guide to Ditching Toxic Stress & Hardwiring Your Brain For Happiness (Skyhorse Publishing).
Jodi has a private practice in Rochester, New York, and is the mother of teenagers.
- How Jodi herself developed intense episodes of anxiety and panic when she first learned about death at age five. The problem went on for 25 years until she realized she had learned to be anxious, and so she could unlearn it. She later developed the six-step process that she uses in her practice to help children and families.
- How she defines anxiety – “the leftover fear response when you’re not in physical danger”—versus the popular concept of “anxiety disorders.” She notes that our innate fear response helps us to survive, but too often it’s triggered when we don’t need it. The feeling of fear makes us more upset and helps perpetuate a cycle of anxiety.
- The importance of seeing anxiety as something outside of ourselves rather than a chronic mental illness inside of us. When being anxious becomes part of our identity, we define ourselves by our inadequacies, which is disempowering.
- The basics of Narrative Therapy, which she uses to help young people recover from debilitating anxiety. It teaches that “the problem is the problem and the person is the person,” helping us to externalize the issues that trouble us so healing can begin. Her book Anxiety, I Am So Done with You, thus personifies Anxiety almost as a character. Humans are storytellers, she observes, and we understand ourselves through the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. Emotional struggles usually involve a problematic dominant story, such as “I’m a loser. I’m anxious.”
- The importance of helping a person deconstruct their negative “dominant story” and redirect their mental and emotional energy toward building a preferred story using positive traits they already possess.
- Her TedX talk, in which she discussed the reasons she believes today’s adolescents are more anxious than earlier generations. No. 1: the pervasiveness of smartphones and social media, which constantly broadcast messages that make kids feel inadequate and encourage them to compare themselves with others.
- Her new book, Anxiety…I’m So Done With You, which was written especially for anxious teens. In her practice, she saw how many youths were suffering. So she decided to share what she learned in working with them: “Understanding what anxiety is helps take away its power, and it’s not something you have to live with forever.”
- Self-calming techniques taught in the book. These are the tools people already know about – such as exercise, yoga, and getting enough sleep—but they can’t work well until the specter of anxiety has been defused. Her approach is very practical, breaking down what anxiety is both mentally and physically, and then providing worksheets and illustrations to help teens challenge and change their thoughts and behaviors.
- How teens can overcome feeling out of control. “Control issues are anxiety issues,” she notes. We have more control over things in our lives than we realize; things may happen to us, but we decide how to respond to them. That response, in turn, affects our mood and self-esteem.
- Different ways kids can look at and talk back to their panicky feelings and sensations. These self-messages “put the brakes” on the brain’s amygdala, which triggers the fight-or-flight response, and allow the brain to calm itself through releasing the hormone GABA.
- Cross-cultural research on happiness and neuroplasticity that supports having a sense of purpose, establishing daily routines, spending time outdoors, as contributing to emotional well-being. All of these are things teens can do to overcome an anxious mindset. “Our brains are highly adaptable,” she says. “But when you have the same emotion over and over again [such as anxiety], it gets easy to stay on that path, but you can reroute that with change of habits.”
- How COVID-19 affects adolescents’ anxiety levels. Here the fear is appropriate, not a sign of mental illness. Aspects of the crisis, such as isolation, can aggravate it, however. Kids can feel lonely and lost, so adults need to help them find routines, ways to connect, a sense of purpose, and some novelty.
- How adults can help the teens in their lives. Among other things, she wants parents to appreciate how difficult struggling with anxiety can be and that their child is trying to get better; to help calm them by distracting them with a fun or useful activity, and to be supportive. “If we have confidence in them, they’ll have confidence in themselves,” she explains.
- What schools can do to ease the culture of anxiety. Teachers need to understand it better, focusing less on vectoring troubled teens into mental health services and more on keeping an eye out for students who may be “falling between the cracks” and letting it be known they will provide a listening ear.