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Students, parents learn to talk about anxiety

Batavia High School screens film on debilitating disorder

Batavia High School student Anna Knutson, left, and BHS guidance counselor Gia Peckhart were greeting visitors at the Batavia Fine Arts Centre on Jan. 23 for a screening of a documentary film about anxiety disorders.
Batavia High School student Anna Knutson, left, and BHS guidance counselor Gia Peckhart were greeting visitors at the Batavia Fine Arts Centre on Jan. 23 for a screening of a documentary film about anxiety disorders.

BATAVIA – Everyone experiences anxiety in life.

But for some people, the feelings of worry and fear become so frequent and severe that they are unable to function normally and suffer physical symptoms.

There are several types of anxiety disorders and together they comprise the most common mental health problem in the nation.

For parents, anxiety in their children can be a frustrating and mystifying ordeal. The solution is talk, empathy, and if necessary, professional treatment.

That’s why Batavia High School recently offered screenings of an independent documentary film explaining the causes and effects of anxiety along with strategies for coping with the disorder.

About 400 people, mostly parents from Batavia and miles around, turned out Jan. 23 to see “Angst: Raising Awareness Around Anxiety” in the Batavia Fine Arts Centre. Earlier that day or the day before, every student at the high school was shown the film.

BHS student Anna Knutson, a senior, said the film helps students remove the stigma that goes with anxiety.

“It normalized a lot of feelings that kids have,” Knutson said. “I got more than I was expecting.”

BHS guidance counselor Gia Peckhart said the documentary identifies the “core fears” that produce anxiety.

“I think this film will help our parents understand where their children are coming from when they are struggling,” Peckhart said.

Those core fears include failure, inadequacy, abandonment and rejection.

The film features interviews with young people, mostly high school and middle school students, along with parents and mental health professionals.

People with an anxiety disorder suffer reactions that are out of proportion to what might be expected in a given situation, according to the film, and often produce physical symptoms including head or stomach aches.

Generalized anxiety disorder creates chronic, everyday worry.

Social anxiety disorder produces intense fear of interaction with other people, prompting social withdrawal.

Panic disorder results in sudden feelings of terror and produces chest pains, dizziness, shortness of breath and other physical symptoms.

Phobias create irrational fears of certain places, objects or events.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder plagues a person with unwanted thoughts that the sufferer attempts to stop by performing rituals or other compulsive acts.

Separation anxiety disorder can produce panic when the person is separated from a person or place that provides feelings of security or safety.

According to the documentary, what these different types of anxiety disorder have in common is that they engage a region of the brain known as the amygdala, which is home to the fight-or-flight response in humans.

The key to coping with anxiety is to distract oneself, essentially rewiring the brain and shifting thought to the frontal lobe, which controls cognitive skills and rational thinking.

When experiencing anxiety, the film recommends distractions that seem remarkably simple.

They include reading or listening to music for five minutes, performing pushups or jumping jacks, writing in a journal, or focusing on breathing.

One novel strategy is to place ice cubes in each hand, which directs focus away from the perceived threat, according to the film.

Parents are advised to talk with their children about their anxieties, showing empathy without agreeing with the unfounded fear, and getting professional help if the problem is frequent and severe enough.

Following the film, a panel of three local doctors fielded questions from the audience, mostly parents who said their children are exhibiting signs of anxiety.

All three agreed that there have always been people suffering from anxiety, but that today’s world exacerbates the problem and has produced more awareness of its effects.

“This current culture is very anxiety-producing,” said Amy MacDonald, a clinical psychologist with Prairie Psychotherapy Services in Batavia.

The Internet and pressure to get good grades and into college make anxiety worse for young people, MacDonald said.

Eric Nolan, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Creekwood Associates in St. Charles, said treatment, not medication, is the best way to deal with most cases of anxiety disorder.

Lekshmi Venugopal, a psychiatrist with Linden Oaks Behavioral Health in St. Charles, said increased awareness of the problem is resulting in more people getting treatment. The alternative can be people resorting to unhealthy ways of coping, she said.

MacDonald empathized with the parents in the audience.

“Being the parent of a child with anxiety is excruciating,” MacDonald said. “It’s really hard to manage because they are panicking.”

Ronae Granzine of Geneva was one of many parents who attended the program in search of answers. Granzine said her 6-year-old son seems to have a fear of sports team mascots.

“I’m trying to figure it out,” Granzine said. “I just want to be an informed parent.”

BHS guidance counselor Erin Hack said that the film screening was part of an annual effort by the school’s guidance department to provide social and emotional programing for students.

“They realize now that anxiety is not a naughty word,” Hack said.

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