Why Is Everyone on Edge These Days? Make Your Camp Stress and Anxiety Free

Anthony Rao, PhD
March 2019
child with soccer ball

Anxiety is climbing steadily in the United States. It’s been tracked for years in adults, but researchers also report similar increases in children and teens. To give you an idea of how anxiety has climbed, consider this: A typical school-age child today (your camper) is as anxious as a child psychiatric patient during the 1950s (Twenge, 2000). Yes, it’s increased that much. And camps are seeing the fallout. Separating from parents seems more difficult. Campers seem more resistant to taking healthy risks and trying new things. There are phobias, eating issues, and sleep issues. Kids don’t show much resilience, and many have a hard time recovering from missteps and setbacks. Finally, there’s significant agitation (even withdrawal) when access to screens and social media is limited.

More often I’m hearing from camp staff that mental health issues are increasingly affecting the camp experience. But in my opinion, anxiety is the root cause, if not the significant driver of most of the problems we see in children.

What’s Causing All This Anxiety?

While we are all more anxious nowadays (than we were a few decades ago) for a number of reasons, studies tend to point to one important factor. Living in the modern information age is overwhelming. Our lives are rushed and we are overstimulated by information. We get pulled in a hundred different directions. We are prompted, nudged, and at times assaulted by large volumes of fast data. It is hard to keep up and live life at a digital speed. Our bodies and minds respond the only way they know how — with the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol.

In short, we’re distracted, mentally stretched, and often fatigued.

When feeling overwhelmed, we experience intense but short periods of angst, worry, fear, and mental exhaustion. Being overwhelmed makes it difficult to stay grounded. We can’t calmly reflect or think logically to make good decisions. That confused or stuck feeling you have — that sense that you can’t keep up and adapt to all the changes taking place around you — that’s evidence of being overwhelmed. It’s happening to children as well. In fact, it’s important to start recognizing that some of the anxiety we observe in campers is a result of being overwhelmed, because it forces all of us to acknowledge that the environment (and the times we live in) can trigger the anxiety problems we see. That’s hopeful because we can work to shift the environment and begin to lower stress, tension, and angst for everyone.

Anxiety Also Lowers Our Human Agency

Anxiety is only part of the picture. A larger issue worth talking about is how these times of high anxiety are affecting what psychologists and sociologists have called our human agency. What is agency? Agency is the ability to act as an effective agent for oneself — taking charge of one’s life by being more aware of one’s behaviors and feelings, being reflective, thinking with logic, and working to stay grounded, calm, and centered.

Anxiety, sadly, erodes all this. When anxious we’re distracted, we can’t think logically, and we don’t make the best decisions. In fact, studies show that anxiety speeds up our thinking. We become highly emotional, more impulsive, more likely to follow the herd, and we lose access to our critical thinking. We also sometimes refer to this as the “executive functions” of the brain, which we need for planning, proper deliberation, and executing timely, well-considered decisions.

Beyond Anxiety: Treating the Whole Person

In my work with children and teens, I promote agency. That’s because facilitating agency will not only reduce anxiety symptoms (agency and anxiety act like antagonists to one another), but agency also builds resilience and better coping skills. People with higher levels of agency report being less stressed, able to adapt to change, more creative, happier, and open to new learning. Think of the opportunities to help campers enjoy these benefits. Think of your counselors and staff too. Think of your camp’s mission and ask: “In what ways might we be promoting (or discouraging) human agency?”

The next time you observe children and teenagers at your camp looking anxious, try to see them through a different lens. See them as experiencing a loss of their personal agency.

Start Building Agency at Your Camp

Many teachable behaviors and ways of thinking promote agency in people of all ages. Following is a list of questions and points for you to consider as ways to promote agency (and lower anxiety) at your camp. You will see that you are already doing a lot that is right (so please keep doing what works), and you will hopefully see opportunities to improve.

To identify triggers that could be increasing the worries and fears of campers, ask (Napper & Rao, 2019):

  • What’s going on that may be throwing kids off balance?
  • What’s affecting the staff, causing them to be thrown off balance too?
  • Are we overstimulating campers, unintentionally pushing them into faster, emotional, impulsive ways of thinking and behaving?
  • Do we promote enough healthy movement?
  • Are we overscheduling? More activities are not always better.
  • Are we sometimes too competitive? Can we take it down a notch?
  • Do we hold every kid to the same expectations to achieve/learn/behave/perform despite real differences between similar ages/bunks/cabins/teams? Think developmentally (not just chronologically). Remember, each child is on his or her own developmental journey.
  • How much rest is built into the day, and do we practice moments of reflection?
  • Have we designed camp environments and activities to foster collaboration and social bonding and reduce social anxiety?
  • How can we teach kids to think for themselves and make better decisions and choices? Are we modeling this at the staff level?

References

Napper, P. & Rao, A. (2019). The power of agency: The 7 principles to conquer obstacles, make effective decisions & create a life on your own terms. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Twenge, J. M. (2000). The age of anxiety? Birth cohort change in anxiety and neuroticism, 1952–1993. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 1007–1021.

Anthony Rao, PhD, was a staff psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. He’s the author of two books and is regularly an expert commentator in news segments and articles on trends affecting children. He’s a recipient of the ACA (NE) Peter Kerns Award for the Advancement of Professional Development. His latest book, The Power of Agency, explores strategies to lower anxiety through seven principles that promote human agency. For more information, visit PowerofAgency.com.