The anxiety epidemic and how to help ourselves and those we love
The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (May 21st 2023)
It's May - the most beautiful but also the most stressful time of the year as exam season hits and it is Mental health month
Happy Sunday – I’ve just returned from a walk where the blossom is frothing: armies of horse-chestnuts proudly holding white candles aloft, cow parsley, a three-dimensional technicolour feast of rhododendrons and, of course, the glorious May. In terms of nature, it’s my favourite time of year – it’s like Gaia is just shrieking at us to notice her, appreciate her, feel grateful for the limitless abundance of spring; nature’s clarion call to celebrate life itself.
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And yet this is a time of paradox. It is a time of beauty, sure, but it is also exam time, stress time. It’s official – this is dubbed Mental Health Month with a special focus, this year, on anxiety. I chaired a panel last week where a brilliant young man called Jack Villiers shared his own story of how his ‘successful’ life in big tech companies was derailed by anxiety. How one morning, sitting at his desk again at the end of a very long week, he thought he was dying and was taken to hospital with what he assumed was a heart-attack. It turned out to be “a decade of supressed feelings all those times I’d been too busy to notice how I was struggling.. burning out”. He talked so fluently and vulnerably about how he’d masked emotion with busy-ness and party-ing. How in the wake of his collapse, he began to heal himself by tuning into his feelings, not ignoring them; by asking for help when he felt overwhelmed “rather than packing it all away in the man box”, by practicing everything from cold water immersion to breath work to yoga and meditation so that when the anxiety struck and got him in its vice-like grip he had tools to tackle it.
But what really struck me was how common his story is; I did some research and discovered 60 per cent of the UK work force feels anxious to some degree (with 10 per cent suffering chronically and women and Gen Z’s worst afflicted) – so that anxiety is something we can’t just dismiss. We have to engage with it, take it seriously. I also listened to a wonderful Horatio Claire programme on Radio 4 about the evolutionary benefits of anxiety – how ancient humans who got worried about threats tended to survive longer – but how in our current world, where we live not in kin groups or with people who know us. but surrounded by strangers and comparing ourselves constantly to unreal fantasy on social media, fuels mental illness. And it is not just that we talk about and diagnose it more; suicide numbers are up over the last 20 years. The anxiety epidemic is real. Many of us see it showing up in our own lives, either personally or in those we love or look after.
That felt timely to me because it’s exam time again. In my house my little one is doing her A levels – two down, seven more to go, two this Tuesday! Last week we did coasts, carbon cycle and physical geography and the hero’s journey in The Aeneid and The Odyssey. This week it’s political ideologies and Greek theatre. Over the last three years we will have got through four sets of GCSEs and A levels as a family (one lot concurrent). It’s not easy! My house is currently full of revising teenage girls, every couple of hours they emerge to make food, more tea and smoke ‘blems’ (fags) on our balcony. Yesterday I spent three hours lying on my daughter’s bed while she made political fact sheets and essay plans (I went down a John Stewart Mill wormhole – never realised his wife Harriet had co-written many of his books). While she worked, I listened to podcasts and read a book; she just likes me to be there. I squeeze her foot occasionally, go out and buy Oreos, bring up cups of tea, agree that revision is the pits, say encouraging things about how this is the gateway to a summer of fun. That it will be over soon. I am low key and reassuring. I’ve learnt over the years that I am most useful when my girls are anxious or stressed as a comforting presence; there with sustenance and calm good cheer. The little one hates it when I grill her about how it is going, or what she’s done, or whether she’s doing enough: “I have enough of that going round my head anyway, Mum” she says.
I’ve learnt that the best thing we can do as parents is ask them what they need in that moment and show up with it. It’s hard not to lecture, or interfere or project our own anxieties about the whole of their future (gulp) into the mix. But at this point, only a few days out, it is what it is. Our job is to do whatever it takes to help them feel reassured and as content as possible for the final countdown, to infer by our behaviour that we know they’ve got this, rather than to pile on extra stress and anxiety. Some parents might find it weird that we have a bit of a revision party going on today, but everyone is different. My little one is naturally affiliative, perhaps because she is the youngest, or perhaps because she was just born that way. She’s always hated being on her own, as a baby she refused to be ‘parked’ or put down anywhere, she wanted to be on my body, in the action, with people. At 18 (her birthday is this thursday) she is still the same. She takes comfort from what her friends call ‘doubling’ just having someone around, she says it relaxes her to know someone is there. So the best thing I could do for her yesterday was just – physically – be there.
Not all kids are the same. The boys seem to work in a frantic, frenzied, head-down final sprint. I bumped into a friend at the pond this morning who said her son – GCSEs this week – “Had gone to the gym at 6.30am and was sitting swatting in his room by 8am.” Others report more tricky meltdowns. One Queenager who thought her straight A son had it under control discovered he hadn’t slept for a week and was almost hallucinating with anxiety and terror; they’ve taken the pressure off. He can resit later this year. Another mum was in hospital last week with her stressed out daughter who is dyslexic with terrible ADHD and who began hearing voices and needed professional help. My heart broke for both of them.
At such times all we can do as parents is be there, show up. Put down the other things going on in our lives to just be present. It’s like going back to parenting a new born; they need constant reassurance, and regular feeding and sometimes you have to lie with them and sing to them like you would a baby to get them to go to sleep. They are terrible times. Terrifying, we have to dig really deep, bring up all our reserves of self-control and sympathy – put aside our own feelings and concerns and just be there for them. A therapist told me when we were in this darkness as a family that the role of the parent is to be like a St Bernard dog, or a dolphin. Walking alongside, nudging them back in the right direction, providing tea or hot milk when required. There. Faithful. Dogged. A solid point, like the bottom of the swimming pool for them to push off and return to the light. She was right. It passed. They do – miraculously – get better.
We live in an epidemic of anxiety amongst our teens. Parents now have to cultivate these quiet skills, of being alongside, of containing, of being a quite, faithful presence. To think about what THEY need from us, not what we want/expect from them. There is nothing like having a stressed/ill teen to make you realise as a parent that all your ambitions for them are meaningless compared to them being happy. That actually nothing matters at all when they are really in the doldrums except keeping them alive, getting them through, seeing them happy again. That that really is all that matters. That is truly is enough. Of course we want the best for them; but most of all we want them to be okay, happy in themselves, here, good enough. None of the rest is important.
I write this because I know how many kids – and therefore by extension parents – are in this zone at the moment. And I write this to offer support and to say you are not alone. I am reassured that these days we are getting better at admitting how tough it is, for them and us. A queenager cancelled a lunch on me last week saying ‘I just need to be there for my daughter as she is having a tough time with exams.’ She’s right. I was thinking longingly of going away for the Bank Holiday weekend, but I know my place is here with my daughter for the next two weeks… Particularly because after that she will be gone: off inter-railing for the summer with her friends – her plans are efficiently worked out, Air BnB’s and hostels booked, trains to Slovenia and Croatia, Berlin and Amsterdam.
There is something bitter sweet in being here for her now – the last bit of school support. I feel the pain of a closing era – like stopping breastfeeding, or the day you drop them at nursery, or they go to big school. And now she will be taking off again and 21 years of this stage of parenting will come to a close. A true new era beckons when the house will be quiet; my teenage chums will all have flown away.
I was so sad when my eldest first went to university. I cried so much I was an embarrassment. When we dropped her off I kept having to nip downstairs for a weep and to take myself in hand. This is sad, but because it is the second time – and I know they come back! – not so bad! The truth is that parenting teens is less intensive than having small kids but when they need you, they NEED YOU and no one else will do. So show up. Before it is too late.
I try not to write too much about parenting in these newsletters because I am so aware that nearly a third of Queenagers don’t have kids, but I reckon many of the child-free are aunties or godparents, or friends with mums who will really be under the cosh. So I write this to share some hard-won wisdom and to extend a big hug to anyone who is suffering; after all, who cares for the carers? Well we do.
I was reminded of that this morning when one of the wonderful women who came on our Noon Tour to Morocco posted on our whatsapp that her mother had died. The outpouring of sympathy and love and support was instant and heartfelt. She said she was so grateful for the ‘week of joy which had given her resilience to withstand the agony’. I’m glad it helped. (One of the other women Ali Fairhurst wrote this wonderful article about the trip).
This is a time of many pinchpoints, many pressures, the loss of beloved parents, helping our young people forge their paths, dealing with our own health issues, the deaths of friends, the break up of marriages, forks in the road on our careers and our sense of ourselves. But the good news is that on the other side of these tough times are the sunny uplands of Queenager-hood and our prime. And the support of loving friends gets us through.
So enjoy the blossom, get out in the sun, give yourself a big pat on the back (you are doing a great job!) And remember, this too will pass. And everything feels better after a cup of tea and a biscuit (several).
And if you are in need of some succour – do come to our next Noon Retreat – just one day at Wasing in Berkshire on July 8th. There will be swimming and delicious lunch and community and a Noon Circle under a 1500 year Yew tree.
And if that is too long to wait – then the next Noon Circle for subscribers will be at the soho flat at 7pm on Tuesday May 30th
And don’t forget Noon Book Club (free books for Paid Subscribers to this newsletter) on June 19th
By Eleanor Mills