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In this episode, we're talking with Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Jamie Roberts about teen anxiety. Anxiety is all-too-common in our teens -- and in the world in general. This episode provides definitions and explanations of anxiety and some practical strategies you can use right now to start taking control of anxiety.
Share this episode with a teen in your life, and make sure to pick up a copy of Jamie Roberts' book, Mindfulness for Teen Anxiety: A Practical Guide to Manage Stress, Ease Worry, and Find Calm. It’s written for teens in a format and style that they’ll really connect to and not feel overwhelmed by.
In this week's episode, you'll learn:
- How to define anxiety
- Strategies to get a handle on anxiety
- The importance of self-talk
- How mindfulness affects anxiety and why it helps
"It will pass. Every time you’ve had anxiety or a panic attack, it has passed. In that moment, it sure does feel awful, and like it’s never going to end, but every time it has happened, it has ended. So know that there is relief in sight."
- Jamie Roberts
Jamie Roberts, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
- Equilibrium Counseling Services
- Equilibrium Counseling Services on Facebook
- Equilibrium Counseling Services on Instagram
- Jamie Roberts on Instagram
- Jamie Roberts' Newsletter
- Book: Mindfulness for Teen Anxiety: A Practical Guide to Manage Stress, Ease Worry, and Find Calm
- Take the Stone Out of the Shoe - by Jill Stowell
- At Wit's End - Chapter 19: Executive Function (and the teenage brain)
LD Expert Podcast - Episode #54
Teen Anxiety - Jamie Roberts
Jill Stowell: Do you ever binge watch TV series? I’ve been watching this Netflix series Ginny and Georgia. Ginny is a sophomore in high school, so many of the scenes take place at school and center around her friends. I realize it’s a TV show, but I was astounded and a little heartbroken to realize the degree of anxiety that these teenagers were living with and that I suspect many teens are living with everyday.
Welcome to the LD Expert Podcast, your place for answers and solutions for dyslexia and learning differences.
Today, we’re discussing a very important topic - teen anxiety. We’ll look at what’s happening in the body and brain when we feel anxious and some tools for helping teens feel calmer and more in control of their daily lives.
I’m your host, Jill Stowell, founder and executive director of Stowell Learning Centers and author of Take the Stone Out of the Shoe, A Must-Have Guide to Understanding, Supporting, and Correcting Dyslexia, Learning, and Attention Challenges.
My guest today is Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Jamie Roberts. I met Jamie in 2017 when she was finishing her internship and licensing, and even then, she was a wonderful resource for us at the Learning Centers and very passionate about helping teens struggling with anxiety. Jamie is the founder of Equilibrium Counseling Services, a teen and young adult mental health center in Southern California. ECS is a place where all identities and brains are celebrated, with the goal of building confidence in identity, and reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Welcome, Jamie! I’m so glad to have you join us today!
Jamie Roberts: Thank you for having me, Jill. I’m excited to be here, and thank you Stowell Learning Center - always been a great resource for me.
Jill Stowell: Well, I got an opportunity to read your book - I love it, and we’re going to be talking about that. It seems like teen anxiety has always been an important focus for you. If you don’t mind my asking, what’s the story behind that?
Jamie Roberts: Teens are my passion. I get so excited working with teens so I love being here and you asking that great question. The guiding point for my work and my practice and my passion is to become the person I needed when I was younger.
My anxiety really peaked in middle school and high school, and I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t know what it was called. And I had different breakdowns and burnouts throughout my academic career, because I was undiagnosed dyslexic, ADD, and ADHD, so there were a lot of hurdles that I was going through that I was unaware of, but I felt the emotional and mental health toll.
So what did I do? I went and studied psychology. I went to college for psychology and got my Master’s in Clinical Psychology, wanting to figure out the human brain and why different people struggle for different reasons. How to alleviate that stress and the anxiety impact, and so here I am now. I’ve been a clinician for ten years now, and teens are my whole practice. And neurodivergent teens in particular. Helping bridge that gap, and reduce the suffering.
Jill Stowell: Well, you’re certainly a great role model for so many of our students who have ADHD or dyslexia, experience anxiety, so I’m super glad that you’re in our community.
More and more parents are voicing concerns about anxiety. It’s kind of shocking to me how often I hear that, and how much we see it. How do you define anxiety?
Jamie Roberts: Great question. I define anxiety as the body’s nervous system response to a perceived threat. When we – our body’s feeling threatened, we go into fight, flight, and freeze. And that is our natural response system. But our bodies haven’t evolved as fast as our society has, and so there are a lot of things in our world that our brain is perceiving as a threat, which may or may not be life threatening, but we go into that place of survival. And when we’re in that survival state, our brain can’t tell the difference, and we have those big reactions, the trigger moments, the dysregulation, and when we’re bouncing between our nervous system responses of fight, flight, and freeze, anxiety, anger, depression, it’s really hard to find neutral. And I think that’s what we’re seeing a lot is people bouncing between those experiences, not finding that pause in the middle, finding that neutral, finding that ok zone. And I remember in the Window of Tolerance, when I talk about this, about being able to learn how to self-regulate, and that this is a natural response, but we don’t want to stay stuck in it. And that’s what anxiety is, it’s the staying stuck part.
Jill Stowell: Wow, I think that – you know, it’s really valuable to know, I think, that this is a natural response because it’s really hard as a parent to see your child feeling anxious and of course, you know, as the person experiencing that, you know, the shortness of breath or whatever it is that’s happening, that can feel kind of terrifying.
What do you feel teens and their parents need to understand about anxiety?
Jamie Roberts: I think in understanding – naming it to tame it. Naming what, I as the person experiencing anxiety am going through. Can I name the shortness of breath as related to anxiety? Can I name that it’s spinning thoughts versus ruminating thoughts? It’s those second degree questions behind “I’m anxious” or “I’m nervous.” What is causing it? What does that feel like? Where do you think it started from?
So identifying what the triggers are so that we can anticipate them, but also what do I need to self-regulate out of it? What are the things that once I’m triggered with anxiety, help me get back to being ok. How do I self-regulate? Do I need to talk it out? Do I need some space to be alone? Because it will pass. Because every time you’ve had anxiety or a panic attack, it has passed. In that moment, it sure does feel awful, and like it’s never going to end, but every time it has happened, it has ended. So knowing that there is relief in sight, even though it may come back again.
Jill Stowell: Yeah. You know, you said something there that I would just love some clarification on. You said, “spinning thoughts versus ruminating thoughts.” And I know we’ve had some students that have really been concerned about, what I would call, ruminating thoughts. Can you just talk a little bit about the difference between those?
Jamie Roberts: Sure. So I think of them as ruminating thoughts as getting stuck on one thought: “I’m gonna fail the test. I’m gonna fail the test. I’m not ready for the test. The test is really gonna get me. It’s gonna ruin…” The test is the issue. Versus spiraling thoughts would be, “I’m not prepared for the test. The test is gonna be so hard. It’s gonna mess up my whole GPA. And I’m not gonna be any good, and all of my friends are gonna think I’m dumb, and then I’m not gonna have any friends, and then like, I’m gonna be depressed my entire life.”
And I also think there are bouncing thoughts about, “Well I have the test here, but what about science? Or what about this, but I have practice over here.” And it’s shifting from different topics, but the anxiety is still present.
Jill Stowell: And so, with anxiety, it almost sounds like it’s overwhelm. All of those things you’re describing feel like everything’s overwhelming.
Jamie Roberts: Yeah. And also, like, over-stimulation. “I’m overwhelmed by being over-stimulated. There’s clicking over here, the lights are too bright over there, I’m trying to remember what I learned at my Stowell Learning Center – what those resources were, but trying to remember what the teacher said…” can all be flooding in at once and create that overwhelm.
Jill Stowell: In your book, Mindfulness for Teen Anxiety, you quote David D Burns, MD as saying, “The moment you have certain thoughts and believe it, you will experience an immediate emotional response. Your thoughts actually create emotion.”
We work with amazing kids of all ages, but until their struggles with learning are reduced or eliminated, they can really suffer while they’re going to school. They often beat themselves up with negative thoughts - just like you were saying - and frustrations around their learning difficulties.
So, I would love for you to talk about how our self-talk and thoughts impact us.
Jamie Roberts: Our internal voice, which most of us have - not everybody - is that soundtrack we have through the day. It’s the words we hear most consistently. And what we focus on is what grows. And evolutionarily when we were surviving outside, we were focused on “what’s gonna kill me, what’s gonna take me out?” So I can keep track of that, versus keeping track of the safe things. Because if I know what’s dangerous, I know everything else is safe. And our brains are still doing it. It’s looking for what’s a threat to me? And keeping tabs on all the threats, as opposed to seeking safety or seeking that neutral. And so some of that, that is the brain’s switch from the negative self-talk to some of the positive, more neutral self-talk of “I’m ok here, this is safe, this person is ok, this situation isn’t going to put me in danger.”
And so with my clients I talk about, my brain is story-telling. My brain is trying to fill in the gaps of the unknown, and that’s what it’s designed to do. So as it’s filling in these gaps, which it tends to do in a negative perspective, can I fact check it? What is true, what is false, what do I know for certainty? And if I don’t know it for certainty, either I set it aside because it’s not real yet, or I seek more clarification. Can I ask the teacher about the deadline, can I let my parent know I’m struggling with this, can they clarify what’s gonna be coming up next? Because when we can switch our thoughts to that direction, it can help alleviate some of it. Now, changing your thoughts isn’t going to do everything because like we said, anxiety, or having that dysregulation, there is a natural component to it, but having that awareness of “Oh I think it’s my thought that is riling up my anxiety or my fear. Can I shift that in any way? Can I present an alternate idea or thought process?”
Jill Stowell: Wow, that was a great explanation. I love that you say that our mind, it’s a story that we’re filling in the gaps. And so because it’s a story, it’s not automatically true, so we can fact check it. And I love that language, too, because it’s language that our kids know. Our teens know.
Jamie Roberts: Yes. One of the most popular exercises in my book so far, the feedback I’ve gotten is about language. And one of the exercises, I call it “Puppy Language.” And it goes to talk about that negative self-talk that– how do you speak to your puppy or to your dog or to your pet? And how does that compare to how you talk about yourself?
If I need my dog to go outside or move it, I say “Come on you little squish face, let’s go move that body” or “It’s time to get movin’”. And like, kind of like herd them outside. But if I’m sitting on the couch, and I’m having a hard time getting moving, it’s a lot more negative, like, “Why are you so lazy? Why can’t you do this? Why can’t you do anything right?” But if I switch it–if I won’t say it to my pet, I’m not gonna say it to me. So how can I change that language to myself and be like, “Hey you little couch potato, let’s get moving now! Time to start that thing that’s on the list.” And I think that’s accessible language because kids, adults, anyone we do have some of that playful language with our animals or with our friends. And how do we then change that to work for ourselves?
Jill Stowell: That’s so great. When we can connect what we’re trying to teach our students to something very real in their lives, it has so much greater of an impact.
Jamie Roberts: Absolutely.
Jill Stowell: You know, research shows us that there is physiological communication between the heart and the brain and that the thinking part of the brain is highly affected by the emotional part and vice-versa. Our thoughts are driven by words, so our words- maybe especially our words to ourselves - are very, very powerful.
Jamie Roberts: Yes, absolutely agree with that. Nothing to add there, that was perfect.
Jill Stowell: Yeah. So let’s talk about mindfulness. What it is, and how does being mindful help our anxious teens?
Jamie Roberts: Mindfulness is a practice that originated in Buddhist, religious or spiritual belief systems hundreds and hundreds of years ago. It’s been around for a very long time. But it just kind of made its way into western culture in the last century. And mindfulness is the practice of being present in this current moment. Learning how to slow down, how to become aware of your surroundings as well as your internal experience. Our world is so fast-paced and moving and so much external input and stimuli, that to be able to slow down and take notice around us is what allows us to breathe and slow down and make informed choices about our next actions as opposed to triggered responses.
And so mindfulness can look a lot of different ways between being a mindset, between being a spiritual practice, between being a clinical intervention with specific coping skills that can help reduce some of the stress and getting through different moments. And I believe that mindfulness is something that is practiced throughout the whole day, not just once I’m anxious or on the weekends or when I have time, but it’s intentional throughout the day of being in touch about how my body is moving. Am I regulating or am I nervous? How– this space I have in front of me, if I have my water bottle present so that I can be comfortable throughout the day without having any of the negativity or the anxiety build up.
Jill Stowell: That’s really how our brain re-patterns, how that neuroplasticity happens is when we do it repeatedly, so if we’re aware all day long, then we’re much more quickly going to be able to get to that state for ourselves.
Jamie Roberts: Absolutely. I give the example of a teapot boiling, and then it screams once it’s ready…or once it’s too hot. Of working with kids of…how to, kind of, keep a pulse on where you are. So it doesn't get to the point that I’m screaming or I’m exploding, but how do I check in with myself throughout the day? Do I need to take a break? Do I need to step away? Do I need another resource before it boils over?
Jill Stowell: We started using mindfulness as a part of our attention focus training because that really requires awareness, and I love what you said, about it being, not just present in the external moment, but also internally, what your internal responses are because then it really is taking you away from those spiraling thoughts, and I can see how it would just be an incredible tool for managing anxiety.
Jamie Roberts: Absolutely. You can use the body when the thoughts are spinning. And so redirecting back into “Is there a safe spot in my body? Is there calm or a neutral spot on my body? Can I focus on my left big toe, because it’s actually ok right now. But my thoughts are going really fast, I’m gonna slow it down by just moving and wiggling and focusing on my toe.”
And then doing a body scan all the way up, and they can be flexing and releasing, or tensing, releasing your muscles. Or adjusting your body, and bringing awareness back to here. And then also starting to name what emotions I’m feeling. “Is my upset stomach, is that butterflies? Or is that nervousness? Is my heart racing because I’m excited?” And starting to check in with your physiological response, as well as your emotional response, either to support or counteract what the thoughts are having going on.
Jill Stowell: And just listening to that, I can see how that would give teens a feeling of so much more control.
Jamie Roberts: Yes, there is so much out of a teen’s control, in their daily life and their overall life of “What can I do? I can control my body.” And we want to spin that in a positive self-care way because it can very easily go in a negative way about “Well my body is the only thing I can control,” there can be some less supportive, or maladaptive ways that we cope with that, and we want to spin it in a way of like, “How can I support myself? How can I heal myself? What is my body needing so that I can provide that?”
Jill Stowell: Wow. Yes. In your book you have 7 Pillars of Mindfulness in order to make it really meaningful. Can you run through those for us?
Jamie Roberts: Sure. The 7 Pillars of Mindfulness are:
Non-Judging: so just noticing what’s going on with your brain, or just noticing what your body is feeling, as opposed to judging, “Why am I feeling this?” It’s more of “Ok, I am.”
Having Patience: that this is an ongoing practice. That it’s not going to happen immediately. That I’m going to learn to sit with some of this uncertainty.
There’s also the Beginner’s Mind: which is being a beginner, and that’s ok. And being in the learning space and taking in more information that we may never master it because we’re always an eternal learner.
There’s also Trust: Trusting yourself, trusting your body, trusting your experience and the people around you to move through this.
Non-Striving: That there isn’t a particular, or perfect, or correct outcome. It is just to be. And whatever to be is, for you in that moment, in that situation.
The sixth is Acceptance: accepting what is around us, accepting our experience. And that doesn’t mean that we have to accept suffering or accept something that’s difficult, but accepting that this is where I am right now, and there may be things I want to change or improve moving forward. But if I reject my current experience, I'm not being mindful of where I am right now.
And there’s also the seventh is Letting Go: Letting go of what doesn’t serve me. Letting go of maybe woulda-coulda-shoulda’s. And letting go of some of the expectations that may be unrealistic and embracing yourself.
Jill Stowell: Well, that is fantastic. I keep referencing your book, and it is called Mindfulness for Teen Anxiety - A Practical Guide to Manage Stress, Ease Worry, and Find Calm. It is really a wonderful book, and you have so many strategies in it for helping teens learn to be mindful. And you’ve talked about some… What are a couple of your favorites?
Jamie Roberts: I mean, Puppy Language is definitely my favorite. I also very very commonly reference body scans. So that is literally just scanning up and down your body, and checking where you are and identifying what you’re feeling. I think that is a very common, very fast, very easy one to be able to do no matter where you are, and nobody outside of you knows of what you’re doing. I love using the five senses, because that can help regulate the body as well, and distract the mind. So sight, sound, touch, taste…and I just lost the fifth one in my head, but using those and a lot of the time I use my fidgets with that, using cold water, noticing what’s around me, listening to any sounds. And I think that’s– everyone knows the five senses, everybody can count them out. You can look around and there’s always something within reach, within sight, within hearing to be able to use that as regulation.
Jill Stowell: So just focusing on “What do I see? What do I hear? What do I feel? What do I taste? What do I smell?”
Jamie Roberts: Mm-hmm, cause those can be resets to the nervous system. Right? Like, if I’m kind of dysregulated, and I’m starting to panic, and I take a big gulp of cold water, and I notice the taste, or I notice the temperature on my tongue and the swallowing and how my body… it can help reset the body, reset the nervous system to– back to baseline and a lot of the other senses can do that as well.
Jill Stowell: Right. And that is, you know, that word “reset,” I mean, that is exactly what needs to happen. Sometimes something is happening and you just feel like it’s gonna go on forever. And we just need a little reset, like a switch, and now you can start to move out of that.
Jamie Roberts: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. Everything can start over. I can start over in 30 seconds, one minute, five minutes, an hour, tomorrow… You don’t have to wait until Monday to start a new plan, or wait to the weekend to practice. Ok, maybe I had a reaction– a big reaction right now, and I can reset and start again one minute later.
Jill Stowell: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for sharing these things with our listeners. I really want to encourage teens and parents of teens to get a copy of Jamie’s book: Mindfulness for Teen Anxiety: A Practical Guide to Manage Stress, Ease Worry, and Find Calm. It’s written for teens in a format and style that they’ll really connect to and not feel overwhelmed by, which I think is really important. So, Jamie, where can they get a copy?
Jamie Roberts: I also really like that it’s colorful on the inside. It really grabs the eye and stays engaged, and you can write right in the book and do the exercises right away. You can find the book: Amazon, Target, Barnes and Noble. You can also purchase directly from me on my website, EquilibriumCS.com. And when I send them out, I sign all the copies, so whatever’s an easiest way for you to get ahold of it, it is available. I believe it’s free on Kindle, also, through Amazon.
Jill Stowell: Great. Well we will put a link in the show notes so people can be sure to get that.
As we work with students of any age, but particularly adolescents and teens, we know that we have to get buy-in and that it has to feel relevant to them right now so that– we always want to make them a part of the process of what we’re going after and why and how that’s working in their brain.
What do you feel is the most important thing in getting teen buy-in?
Jamie Roberts: I think the most important thing is using their language. Using examples directly from their life to make it relatable. It’s really hard to talk to a teen about their anxiety, their lived experience, if we’re using examples that aren’t relevant to them. So I think that is the first place: meeting them where they are, so joining your teen, your student, whoever, where they’re at. If it’s a video game that’s helping them regulate, joining them in the video game and bringing some ideas there. Or finding video games that support some of the mindfulness or the mental health stuff. Or if it’s art, how can we utilize art to support mental health or reduce anxiety. There’s so many ways to integrate what they’re already using, and then strength-based approach, into their healing process.
I also think some things being quick and direct, versus long explanations. So a lot of the examples in my book, I try to be very succinct, and direct, and here’s why, here’s how, go try. And bringing that into the conversation as well, so it’s not a long learning process, but I can grab this and I can try it now.
Jill Stowell: Absolutely. Well, Jamie, thank you so much for being here today. Before we wrap up, how can people find you online?
Jamie Roberts: I am on all the social medias because you gotta be where the teen is. So we are on Facebook as Equilibrium Counseling. We are on Instagram as @equilibriumcounseling, as well as my professional account is @neurodivergenttherapist. I’m also on TikTok as @neurodivergenttherapist. And we have a YouTube: Equilibrium Counseling Services. And our website is EquilibriumCS.com. So anywhere you look, you’re going to find us.
Jill Stowell: Perfect. Well, it sounds– it sounds like something that is amazing for teens and unfortunately, I think there’s a huge, huge need for you. So…
Jamie Roberts: Yes, we are seeing a big surge right now for multiple reasons, but we have space for working on, and sharing the information with opportunities like this to be able to support teens in all arenas of their life.
Jill Stowell: Absolutely. Well this has been so helpful. And I’m really grateful to you for helping teens and families in such a positive and productive way! We love having you in our community. I love your new book. So thank you so much, Jamie.
Jamie Roberts: Thank you so much for having me. This was really wonderful.
Jill Stowell: Next week, we’ll be taking a deep dive into processing skills and the impact of processing skills on learning, attention, anxiety, and behavior.
At Stowell Learning Centers, we help children and adults eliminate struggles associated with dyslexia and learning differences. We want to make this journey easier for you. Connect with us on social media and on our website, stowellcenter.com, for information and free resources.
If you found this episode valuable, please “like” and subscribe so you don’t miss out on new episodes. The struggles associated with dyslexia and learning differences can be eliminated. Please help us get the word out by leaving a 5-star review. Let’s change the narrative together!
- Episode 56: Executive Function, Procrastination, and Strategies – Natalie Borrell and Alison Grant
- Episode 55: How Processing Skills Impact Behavior and Attention – Jill Stowell
- Episode 54: Teen Anxiety – Jamie Roberts
- Episode 53: Anxiety, Attention, Behavior and Learning – Jill Stowell
- Episode 52: Stealth Dyslexia and the Trauma of Undiagnosed and Untreated Learning Challenges – Dr. John Danial
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