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Antidote to anxiety: Experts dissect growing disorder

January 18, 2019

GREENWICH — For the past few years, therapists have seen the numbers of young people with anxiety disorders increase, but only now sense that society is open to talking about it.

Parents and teachers hungered for answers and advice from two therapists, Orla Cashman and Daniel Villiers, on anxiety disorders, the influence of technology, and effective ways for individuals and families to understand and work through them.

“I just want to be as informed as possible,” said Peter Adams, an English teacher at Brunswick School. “It is unnerving to be at school, where kids are so immersed in technology.”

The two fielded questions Wednesday night at the Mason Street Project in Greenwich, which invites community members to participate in conversations around current topics. It’s a local iteration of a yearly conference called the Nantucket Project.

Anyone can feel anxious, but people with anxiety experience an amplified version of that feeling constantly, to the point where it dehibilitates them, Villiers said.

Almost one-third of adolescents will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder by the age of 18, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health. High school students today experience more anxiety symptoms and are twice as likely to see a mental health professional as teens in the 1980s, according to the Child Mind Institute.

“We are experiencing, whether it’s ourselves or someone we know, our own increased worries about the prevalence of anxiety, the ways it’s manifesting, the ways we do and don’t understand it,” Cashman said.

Society is in an awareness stage, Villiers said.

“How many articles do you see on anxiety now?” he said. “They’re everywhere. People know what it is. Now it’s, ‘What do we do about it? How do we work together to address it?’”

Villiers retold his struggles with anxiety that led him to found the Anxiety Institute in Greenwich, a program that treats 13- to 25-year-olds for anxiety and related behavioral challenges such as depression and social avoidance.

When he was a teenager, his life was defined by the four walls of his room, and the five therapists he saw before he met one who he connected with, one who understood, and could treat, his disorder.

Exposure therapy, in which patients incrementally confront the things that trigger their anxiety, helped Villiers. Therapy felt like swinging a heavy golf club in practice — everyday interactions felt lighter, like swinging a normal club.

Thinking back on his years spent in therapy and years of his parents not understanding, Villiers said he his younger self was looking for someone who understood his anxiety and wanted to help.

The first step involves better connection at home, Cashman said.

Parents who want to talk to their anxious children should establish a personal connection, show genuine interest in what children think, and be open to discovering a new way of thinking, she said.

“This is where we have crawled under our devices and screens,” Cashman said. “We forgot how important face-to-face interaction was.”

Tara Allen, a teacher at Darien High School, has noticed an increase in students who have plans that make learning accomodations or provide additional services for anxiety disorders.

“What’s next? How has technology affected those disorders?” she said.

Cashman sees a strong correlation between technology and anxiety, but also an opening for a discussion among parents, teachers and school administrators about clearer rules for technology use, tech-free zones in the house or at school, and for families, device-free vacations.

“Are we going to continue letting this train go at 1,000 miles an hour and render us without our adult narrative of what is best for our kids?” she said.

The anxiety around success that Allen sees in her students holds them back from taking risks.

“In this community, in Fairfield County, they’re afraid to make mistakes,” she said. “They’re almost numb.”

Parents are afraid, too — afraid of not signing their children up for enough tutoring, afraid they do not have enough after-school activities that will help them get to college, Cashman said. But children need more unstructured time, she said.

The pressure to succeed can feel worse in Greenwich, where parents’ successes are visible, but the trials and tribulations are not, Villiers said.

Instead, parents should think about being vulnerable with their children, Villiers said.

Cashman suggested parents share stories of failure as a way of connecting and teaching lessons, or asking their children, “How do you think we’re doing as parents?”

“Vulnerability has a lot of power,” he said. “It’s a humanizing trait.”

A second session was added for 7 to 8:30 p.m. Jan. 23. To register for the wait list for that event, visit https://nantucketproject.com/mason-st-project/.

Orla Cashman is a psychotherapist in Greenwich with more than 25 years of experience. More information about her practice can be found at http://greenwichpsychotherapy.com/.

Daniel Villiers is the co-founder of the Anxiety Institute, located in Greenwich. More about this institute can be found at https://anxietyinstitute.com/.

jo.kroeker@hearstmediact.com

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