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Who Run The (Anxious) World? Girls.

Adolescence has never been easy – from worries about school, friends and all the ways their bodies are changing, teenagers have it rough. Mental health experts say these worries are taking their toll. According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health – anxiety is now the most common mental health diagnosis for college students. And this can be limiting, getting in the way of things you want to do in your life. As Åsa Secher reports, the focus is narrowing in on girls, who researchers say are twice as likely to be affected.


The floor in 18-year-old Lula Hyers’ room of her Soho apartment is covered in clothes.


This is the way my brain works, I know where everything is… but just like, these are my piles of dresses


She’s just finishing her first year at college. And it’s been rough at times – she has a lot of anxiety, which feels like…  


Almost someone kind of squeezing you, like when you really want space (0:08)


Lula says when she’s anxious, and just over-thinks everything – she can’t turn it off. It’s almost as if she can see all the things stressing her out.


You get up and go to the bathroom, whatever, they’re like hanging all around you,  like I kind of feel like everywhere you look it’s like in your brain, hey did you do this today, oh you didn’t do this, and you didn’t do this, my brain doesn’t know how to naturally like let go. (0:20)


Lula’s been anxious since the was a little girl. Growing up her parents traveled a lot and Lula worried.


I would call it the feeling and it would be just kind of like my stomach knotted up and I felt really, really sad. I would think about being 40 and my parents like being dead or something crazy like that when I’m like 7. (0:19)


Anxiety is a fear of what might come, and typically our brain goes to a space that is worst case scenario land. (0:10)


Kristin Kunkle is a psychologist at the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders. Kunkle says there are a number of different types of anxiety: social anxiety, separation anxiety, phobias, panic attacks. There’s even something called generalized anxiety disorder. But they all have one symptom in common – persistent fear in situations where most people wouldn’t feel threatened.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that nearly 40 percent of adolescent girls have experienced some kind of anxiety disorder.

And Kunkle says, researchers are still trying to figure out why girls are twice as likely as boys to be anxious.


There is some preliminary evidence, that has to do with genetics, boys and girls and hormones, however I think the research that’s done is mostly on rat‘s brains, so I’d say the jury is still out on that. The bigger issue is how the environmental factors impact girls versus boys. (0:25)


Environmental factors can be the stress of social media for example. But there’s more to it. Research shows that when girls go through puberty, they tend to become less satisfied with the way they look, while the opposite is true for teenage boys. Add the fact that there are fewer spots open at the most prestigious universities and you end up with the pressure to be, well, perfect.

And then there are the adults, who tend to – most likely unknowingly – treat boys and girls differently.


For example with shyness, adults may be more likely to encourage kids to face their fears if they’re boys, versus with girls kind of say oh they’re so cute, they’re adorable, don’t make her talk if she doesn’t want to. (0:16)


And this is the paradox of anxiety – to let someone avoid something that makes them anxious  can actually make it worse, because avoidance fuels the anxiety.

Ambi: Hanna calling Amelia that it’s dinner (0:05)


It’s Monday night and 16-year-old Hanna Curley is letting her sister know that dinner’s ready. The Curleys live in a beautiful 2-story house in Nyack. There are three bathrooms in the house, but since October, Hanna has only been using the ones upstairs. She leads me to the bathroom on the first floor, and points to the cabinet under the sink


It’s a small bathroom too, so like you can see, you want me to open the door? You can see kind of like a smudge… (0:15)


The smudge from where her mom killed a centipede. Hanna is extremely scared of centipedes.


I can’t look at pictures of them or I get like horribly afraid. like i can’t sleep cause i feel like they’re around. (0:06)


Once she saw a picture of one in her biology textbook. Since then she peeks before she turns to the next page. She’s never tried to get rid of her fear, she’s hoping it’ll go away as she gets older. And as long as she lives in a house with three bathrooms, it feels manageable.

For 18-year-old Lula Hyers’ – our Soho college student – anxiety causes bigger problems – especially her panic attacks.  


You just can’t think, you can’t talk, you can’t move, and all of a sudden just like, total panic. I hold my breath and I hold my breath for so long and then I feel like I’m gonna fall over cause I haven’t taken a breath in so long… often I’m like kneeling over, gripping my chest because I feel like I’m gonna have a heart attack (0:22)


This happens regularly. Sometimes when she’s in class and the teacher starts talking about assignments she hasn’t started, but also…


…when I feel like I don’t have control of a situation anymore (0:07)


She has been to therapy, but she didn’t like it. Instead, she’s developed her own coping strategies. And there is one in particular that always works.

Ambi Lula playing a video of her dancing (0:10) – fade out under Secher 13


Lula is looking at a video on her phone that she recorded earlier this morning. It’s of her dancing in her dorm. She says when you’re watching yourself…


…you start focusing on your body and you get very much within your own body and mind and you’re not thinking about those things (0:07)


Doing things that she can completely lose herself in is what works best for Lula – and she’s not alone. The recurrent recommendation for kids with anxiety is to get them to focus on something near-term, like moving their bodies. But more than anything, Lula has accepted that her anxiety is part of her and not something she can get rid of that easily, but she can teach herself how to deal with it. One dancing video at a time.

Åsa Secher, Columbia Radio News.


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