How India’s teens are dealing with increasing anxiety

31 August 2022
Divya Pandey Written by Divya Pandey
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Divya Pandey

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Ankita Magdani Reviewed by Ankita Magdani
Ankita Magdani

Ankita Magdani

Ankita Magdani is a Mental Health Therapist, Career, and Mindset Coach based in Dubai. She...

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Did you know: In a 2017 study on mental health in India, 197 million Indians faced mental health issues in which over 45 million had anxiety disorders. 

India has a looming mental health crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated mental health concerns, with the Indian Psychiatry Society reporting a 20% rise in mental illness cases since the pandemic. Anxiety, especially in India’s vulnerable teenage population, hangs heavy. One in 4 Indian teenagers lives with depression. Yet, Indian youth seem reluctant to seek help. According to a UNICEF report, only 41% of respondents felt that it was okay to seek support. Is anxiety becoming another pandemic? And what is causing this surge in India among India’s youth?

Anxiety can often stem from childhood experiences

“Anxiety stems from the fear or trauma of problems you have faced in the past, and when you feel it is coming back, you feel anxious,” explains Tejal Dave, a registered psychologist and psychotherapist. Ankita Magdani, a therapist based in Dubai, adds that anxiety can also result from thinking about the future. “For example, when a student is anticipating failure, a tough paper, or rejection from teachers – these are all situations of the future. Maybe or maybe not all of these could have happened in the past. The key thing to understand is when you anticipate the future and perceive it as more dangerous than it actually is what causes panic and anxiety attacks,” she says. For Ankita, anxiety also occurs from internal conflict. 

Tejal adds that a major cause of anxiety depends on the child’s upbringing and surrounding environment. “Let’s say you have faced corporal punishments and had a school environment where the teachers were very strict with you. You get that fear, so whenever you face the same situation like that again where you have to, say, give an exam or go to a new college, that same fear which was there when the teacher hit you will come back, and you will feel anxious.”

Anxiety can be mild or severe, depending on person to person. Everyday anxiety is not the same as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). But high levels of anxiety can consume all areas of your life.

Tejal explains that, from her experience, Indian teens often have to cope with high parental pressure and expectations. Cultural norms that favor one profession over another often pressurize many Indian teens to choose a career or course of study that they are not comfortable with. This can create internal conflict, points out Ankita. India’s intensely competitive academic environment also means that students struggle to cope with demanding schedules. And then, there’s peer pressure. 

‘Your friends are doing well, and you want to do well too. They are doing these things; I want to do it too,” says Tejal. Peer pressure can be particularly potent during one’s teenage years when young adults are just learning the complexities of friendships. Tejal also lists other kinds of anxiety that could develop during this period:

Trauma-related anxiety: Traumatic episodes in childhood like accidents, a parent’s divorce, domestic violence, deaths in the family, childhood sexual abuse. 

Phobia-related anxiety (Can be trauma-induced too): For example, fear of flying, fear of touch, fear of insects, etc

Separation anxiety: Can arise if the child is separated from their parents; sent away to boarding schools. 

It’s important to note that anxiety in children is different from anxiety in teenagers. Children tend to be more anxious about external things, like the classic monster under the bed. Teenagers experience more anxiety around themselves, including their body, performance in school, and how their friends perceive them. 

Symptoms of anxiety in teenagers

The typical signs of mild or severe anxiety include:

  • A feeling of restlessness
  • Inability to focus 
  • Poor sleep 
  • Heart palpitations
  • Mood swings
  • Emotional shutdowns
  • Substance use
  • Drop in school grades

Tejal stresses that changes in behavior, moods, and interactions are red flags that can highlight difficulties in a teenager.

Covid-19’s long-lasting impact

Covid-19 was an unprecedented pandemic. Repeated lockdowns and restrictions on human interaction impacted children, particularly when educational institutions shifted to online classes. “For children, it was worse, as play is their life. They had to sit inside the house due to the pandemic caused a lot of anxiety in them. They could not meet their friends for more than 6-9 months.” And transferred anxiety is a thing too. 

Tejal notes that parents, too, were stressed with the looming job losses, caregiving worries, and financial fallouts of the pandemic. It’s only natural that their children would reflect that anxiety. It’s not just children who experience anxiety – parents too worry over their children—all the time.

If you find that your child is experiencing heightened anxiety, Tejal suggests the following:

1. Trust your child and validate their feelings

Tejal says, “Trusting your child when they come to you is very important.” Don’t dismiss their concerns, she advises. 

“Don’t deny their pain with sentences like, “iska toh hamesha se aisa hai, isko padna nhi hai isliye natak kar raha hai, bahana dhund rahe hain na padne ki. Instead of this, ask your child, Why can’t you sleep? Are you going through something? Do you want to share something with me?” 

Empathizing and believing in your child is very important. 

2. Encourage healthy communication

Encourage talking about your feelings. Normalize all emotions, including anxiety. 

“Instead of shooting them questions like, “Kyun timepass kar raha hai, kyu padhai nhi kar raha, homework complete kiya ki nahi,” ask questions like, “Are you facing something? Is everything alright? Are you going through something?” says Tejal. 

Be approachable. 

3. Set healthy practices

This is a method that Tejal teaches to most parents. She encourages parents to talk about themselves and open up. “When you start talking about your life, you make them show that they aren’t alone. When you show your vulnerability in front of your child, the child thinks they can do it.  

Treating anxiety in teenagers

Therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT can make a difference. Exercise, especially those that involve rhythmic breathing like yoga, can also boost endorphins. 

A psychiatrist can also recommend antidepressants as a form of treatment with therapy if needed. Emphasize good nutrition and sleep. Mindful breathing exercises have also been proven to be effective in addressing anxiety. 

In the end, also be patient with the process. It takes a lot to face our fears. But facing the fear can make that debilitating anxiety less consuming.