News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Tools for coping with anxiety in youth

A screening of the documentary “Angst” on Monday, December 9, at Sisters Middle School was part of an outreach to parents and community members by the Sisters School District.

The focus in Angst, an IndieFlix Original, centers on defining anxiety and exploring its impact on youth while also providing practical information on how to learn to cope with and live with this sometimes debilitating condition.

According to its website, the producers of Angst state their goal “is to help people identify and understand the symptoms of anxiety and encourage them to reach out for help. The film and corresponding materials provide tools, resources and above all, hope.”

Many recent medical and mental-health studies indicate that anxiety levels among American youth are on the rise. While Angst does not grapple with the reasons for this change, it does help viewers better understand both the prevalence and the reality of the condition.

While some anxiety is normal and natural for all human beings, some people experience it at debilitating levels, and, as with many mental-health challenges, anxiety is often not only misunderstood, but dismissed by friends, family and even by the sufferer themselves.

One person in the documentary put it this way: “Health issues above the shoulders are frequently misunderstood.”

Anxiety can be experienced on a scale from mild to severe. At the severe end, anxiety and “panic attacks” are described by young people as being downright paralyzing and terrifying. Parents are often frightened by what their children are experiencing but don’t know how to respond. Many of the youth featured in the documentary expressed how confusing dealing with anxiety was for them and their parents before they found help.

One of the classic symptoms of anxiety is for the sufferer to begin to avoid those things that trigger overwhelming stress. They may stop performing in music, playing sports or even coming to school. This avoidance only makes matters worse.

One of the speakers in Angst said that if kids stop coming to school they get even more stressed because they know they are falling behind, making it vital for them to learn effective coping strategies so they can stay involved where they are.

According to the film, a common response to anxiety occurring in the school setting is for the student to want to call a parent and flee the school for the rest of the day or even longer. Though difficult, a more effective and empowering response is to instead find a way to take a short break and employ some “reset” strategies in order to carry on.

Sisters Middle School counselor Brook Jackson, who helped host the screening along with principal Alison Haney, explained that students throughout the middle school will view the documentary in order to help everyone better understand the issue. In that way, anxiety sufferers can learn they are not alone and that help is available. In addition, students and school staff can be better equipped to understand, and hopefully support, one another.

“We have a commitment to weave social/emotional health and well-being into our daily lives here at the middle school,” he said.

One of the key takeaways from the documentary is how important it is for students to find people who understand what they are experiencing. Students in the documentary said that prior to finding support they felt “weak” and were filled with self-doubt. Two of the young people in Angst developed other disorders such as tics and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that were very noticeable to others, making it very socially difficult for them. Both eventually developed coping mechanisms that have helped.

At the school level, school counselors like Jackson can be the first line of resource for students and parents seeking help for anxiety. Though not diagnosticians or therapists, school counselors can provide means of support and, if necessary, help direct families to further professional help.

Principal Haney explained to the audience that at Sisters Middle School they have developed a support system called “Problem Solving University” (PSU) which means a staff member is available at all times to support a student through challenges during the school day so they have a way to “reset” as needed.

Resources on the documentary’s website ( include a “Symptom Checker” that can help parents get a sense of whether their child may be battling anxiety. One simple way for parents to respond is to get educated about anxiety, listen to their children, and be genuine and vulnerable with their children about their own fears.

Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps makes an appearance in the documentary in a way that legitimizes the reality that some very successful people have diagnosable anxiety. He speaks very honestly about his anxiety level being so great at times that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to even keep on living.

On the website Phelps says, “I welcomed the opportunity to be a part of ‘Angst’ to further the dialogue around mental health and to help people understand the impact anxiety has on our mental state and to encourage people, especially kids, to ask for help.”


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