For part 2 of our series for Mental Health Awareness Month, Shelley Sperry interviewed local psychologist Dr. Mike Brooks, who shared his insights and practical advice for reducing or preventing the stresses and anxieties so many teens are experiencing today.
Dr. Mike Brooks, a licensed psychologist and director of the Austin Psychology & Assessment Center (ApaCenter), says that there is some alarmism around the issue of rising anxiety disorders among teens. “We haven’t dropped off a cliff,” he says, but in many schools in Austin and across the nation the academic and social pressure is intense. “A lot of pressures come to a head in high school, and kids feel the weight and react in a variety of ways.”
Teachers, school administrators, coaches, parents, and peers all have high expectations in terms of grades and extracurricular activities. “I work a lot with stressed teens who think if you have one bad semester you won’t be able to get into your top school, or if you don’t take at least 5 AP classes, you’re falling behind,” explains Dr. Brooks. “These stresses can lead to anxiety and depression.”
But, Brooks says, most kids can find new ways to deal with stress and significant relief through some common-sense behavioral changes. Others will need counseling, often in the form of more formal cognitive behavorial therapy, and a few will need the assistance of drugs along with therapy to balance brain chemistry.
Dr. Brooks believes that the most basic solutions often work well, if kids are really motivated to make some changes. Exercise, sleep, and putting some limits on technology can work wonders to destress teens’ everyday lives.
Exercise. “We are meant to be active,” Brooks explains, “so if we don’t move enough, stress sets in.” Exercise breaks are essential for teens who study long hours, because exercise improves alertness and focus. “We get all that exercise time back later in higher productivity.”
Sleep. The same thing goes for sleep. Here, the science is clear: According to the UCLA Sleep Center, teens need more sleep than adults—an average of nine hours per night. But as a result of busy schedules at home and school, social expectations, or difficulty falling and staying asleep as their bodies adjust to puberty, most teenagers don’t get enough. Lack of sleep can be both a contributor to and a symptom of mental health problems. According to Harvard Medical School’s Mental Health Letter:
The brain basis of a mutual relationship between sleep and mental health is not yet completely understood. But neuroimaging and neurochemistry studies suggest that a good night’s sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience, while chronic sleep disruptions set the stage for negative thinking and emotional vulnerability.
Unplugging and single-tasking. Dr. Brooks specializes in helping parents and kids navigate technology, which often increases stress levels in teens. He has one word for those who spend their study time multitasking: Don’t. Most high school students today are instant-messaging, snapchatting, texting, checking Instagram, and watching YouTube—or some combination of these distractions—while doing homework or reading. The science is still in early stages, but multiple studies show that multitasking decreases the quality of work, can actually inhibit one’s ability to filter out irrelevant information, and can diminish working memory.
As a result of the time and attention lost to multitasking, stress levels and anxiety can increase. So encourage unplugging for part of every day—taking technology breaks—so students can focus on one important task at a time.
When asked what role schools have in lowering students’ anxiety, Dr. Brooks said, “I’d like to see schools be more aware of students’ emotional state. Allow them to step back and observe, and practice mindfulness. Encourage them to check in with themselves to figure out what they want and need.”
Many schools in the Austin area are developing programs that focus on mindfulness and allow students to monitor their own anxieties and feelings of stress. We’ll take a look at some of those solutions in the next installment.
Many thanks to Dr. Mike Brooks for taking the time to discuss his work for this post. Dr. Brooks is a licensed psychologist and the director of the Austin Psychology & Assessment Center. The ApaCenter is a group of psychologists and other practitioners who provide psychological and neuropsychological assessments, therapy, consultation, and coaching to individuals, couples, and families of all ages. Dr. Brooks works with a variety of patients but specializes in helping parents raise balanced kids in a technological world. He is writing a book on this topic and can be found online at DrMikeBrooks.com.
- Jill Barshay, “How a ‘Tech Break’ Can Help Students Refocus,” HechingerED Blog, November 8, 2011.
- Agata Blaszczak-Boxe, “Social Media Use in Teens Linked to Poor Sleep, Anxiety,” LiveScience, September 11, 2015.
- Amanda Lenhart, “Teens, Technology and Friendships,” Pew Research Center, August 6, 2015.
- Annie Murphy Paul, “How Does Multitasking Change the Way Kids Learn?” KQED Mind/Shift, May 3, 2013.
- Alexandra Ossola, “A New Kind of Social Anxiety in the Classroom,” The Atlantic, January 14, 2015.