In My Mind: Teen Anxiety

What exactly is anxiety, and why is it more prevalent in teenagers now than in previous generations? Neuro Educator Nathan Wallis reveals why the brain is more vulnerable to anxiety during adolescence.

“It’s so much easier to be misunderstood online, people constantly stress about whether they are going to be taken the wrong way.”

“Social media doesn’t help.”

“There’s a lot of comparison between ourselves and our peers with our marks and how we handle things. And if you aren’t doing so well you get judged.”

These are just a couple of responses from teenagers at Burnside High School in Christchurch.


Karmella and Seth on the couch talking to eachother.
An increasing number of teens in New Zealand experience Anxiety

Social media has been blamed for the rise of anxiety and depression in adolescents but Nathan Wallis, a leading New Zealand Neuroscience Educator, believes it all comes down to resilience.

“It’s not that they’re weak," he says, "it’s that we’ve removed all of the resilience factors. In my generation, we had an at-home parent for the first year of our life.”

Nathan links the stability of the parent’s life to the teenager’s wellbeing, drawing on how divorce, separation and family deaths can impact the children. Factors such as having a parent at home for the first three years of a child’s life are like a building block of resilience, which sets the child up, and when these blocks are taken away, anxiety and depression can sneak in.

Karmella Reedy is 15 years old and has had anxiety since she was 12, her anxiety manifests itself both physically and mentally.


“For me, it feels like my heart is pushing up against my spine and I have overwhelming shudders of fear.”


“For me, it feels like my heart is pushing up against my spine and I have overwhelming shudders of fear.”

The feeling of potentially letting someone down and being an inconvenience cause her to worry. Karmella describes herself as a perfectionist, qualities she picked up from her mum.

Melina Reedy, Karmella’s mum, noticed her daughter getting worried despite her calm and confident countenance growing up.

“There are three things that stress her out, one would be her academic results, the second would be her friends and her third would be her cultural identity because she doesn’t know where she fits in. She’s still confident but for her to cope she has very specific specifics.”


Karmella and family preparing dinner.
A support network, from family or friends is important in treating anxiety.

Nathan Wallis has a solid understanding of the brain-power behind anxiety saying it's all about the lower brain taking over the upper part.

“The brain scan of a five-year-old is very similar to a 15-year-old, that’s when all of the activity is happening in the emotional brain. When you’re 15 the frontal cortex is shut for renovations, that’s why we see rates of anxiety, depression and suicide soaring in the adolescent years. So we just need to be their cortex for them.”

Karmella’s cousin Seth Adams is 15 and also has anxiety. His mum Karla links it to a period of the emotional trauma he went through losing his dad in his parent’s divorce and his grandma passing away shortly after. Seth was angry and felt he could not trust anyone, but found boxing a way to focus.

“The boxing has really helped because it’s taken him out of his room. Being in boxing has allowed him to build some confidence back.”

"If you’ve got a voice saying ‘you’re aren’t enough,’ you need to take control of that voice and master it.”

Nathan recommends a variety of techniques to manage anxiety including box-breathing, critical thinking and dream analysis, but says the most important one is taking control of the voice inside your head.

“A big part of growing up is realising that voice inside your head is meant to be your best friend, not a critical parent. If you’ve got a voice saying ‘you’re aren’t enough,’ you need to take control of that voice and master it.”

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