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Finding a Natural Way to Treat Teen Anxiety

Teenagers Young Team Together Cheerful Concept

When Tsawwassen naturopathic physician Dr. Heli McPhie began practicing more than 18 years ago it was rare to see anxiety in children.

But these days McPhie is seeing younger and younger people come through her clinic needing help with the stress of everyday life.

“I’m seeing children as young as three and four that are coming in to the clinic for treatment for anxiety,” she explains. “That means that they’re in pre-school and they’re having a tough time going to pre-school because they’re anxious.”

She and yoga therapist Beth Triano teach off-campus classes to high school students to gauge what factors contribute to this modern phenomenon. The pair say 83 percent of students in a recent class asked questions about anxiety.

“So things like, ‘Dr. McPhie I feel really anxious, how does naturopathic medicine treat anxiety? I can’t sleep at night. I always feel like I can’t breathe.’”

Triano participates in workshops with staff and children at Southpointe Academy in Tsawwassen. She says she’s passionate about accumulating research that may help understand the problem in order to effect change.

“Because it’s systemic. It’s not just the kids,” she says. “The kids are learning anxiety somewhere. Kids are not naturally anxious.”

That research is being gathered for a book the pair are collaborating on, focusing on the big question: If children aren’t naturally anxious, just where the heck does it come from?

Triano suggests there are many factors at play, but it’s partly because kids never really unwind anymore. Many teens have smartphones with them at all times, even from a very young age, leaving them “plugged in” all the time.

Triano says typically the scientific measure of increased anxiety has been by counting the number of prescriptions given to children by General Practitioners (G.P.s) to treat anxiety. And while neither she nor McPhie are opposed to allopathic medicine, both urge the need to create a collaborative relationship with naturopathic medicine.

McPhie says it’s important to take time to explore other options first. Those options can include a myriad of things such as changing diet, downtime from “gadgets” and technology, more hours of sleep and proper exercise.

“Coming home and eating a healthy snack and getting some exercise by being outside and unplugged for a time. Then focusing on homework,” she says, adding getting proper vitamins, Omega 3 supplements and ensuring the body has sufficient iron and protein is crucial.

“We’re finding that yoga and meditation are beautiful and effective tools to help reduce stress. And helping children sleep better is also important.”

Although McPhie says there’s both clinical and anecdotal evidence of rising anxiety, the purpose of the book is to explore whether it’s a new phenomenon or if it always existed somewhere underneath the surface of society.

“Did we just not talk about it when we were young?” says McPhie. “We still had anxious people but it was just like, keep going, don’t talk about it.”

Today she says it’s safer to talk about anxiety and depression because there are support services, however some of the “stigma” still remains.

“I think people used to be incredibly fearful. What are the repercussions if I admit that I’m anxious? Am I going to be considered weaker? Am I not going to succeed as much?”

Triano is currently doing a practicum at SFU in counselling, working with 18-year-olds who have been anxious since they were in elementary school. The challenge is in finding practical solutions that don’t simply involve popping a pill.

“How to manage their anxiety so they can function during the day,” she explains. “The weight of the world is on these kids shoulders and they are really struggling.”

McPhie says that’s why they want to work with schools, not just children, but also parents and teachers and administrators, to explore the root causes of anxiety and create a happier, healthier society for the future.

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