Parents and schools need to become better attuned to students’ mental health

By Megan Gallagher

Megan Gallagher is sharing her experiences to help others

A Santa Monica resident in her early twenties, Gallagher is the founder of Motivational Talks with Megan. Find her TEDx talk on YouTube and at meganwgallagher.com.

I felt my first panic attack as a freshman in high school: sweaty palms, elevated heart rate, feeling hot and sweaty, experiencing tunnel vision and clutching tightly to my desk. The next day, at the exact same time, it happened all over again. From the time I was six years old, I was always feeling very nervous before big events — imagining every possible worst-case scenario, bringing myself to tears before sleepovers and field trips. But now I was old enough to realize that I needed help.
When I finally told my parents about these scary episodes my dad told me I had something called “anticipatory anxiety,” which runs in our family. Just hearing that there was a name for what was happening to me made me feel lighter, like I could breathe again.
Weekly therapy sessions taught me how to meditate and reevaluate my thoughts, and by senior year my new normal was not perfect, but a lot calmer and happier. Yet I always wondered how many other kids struggled like I did.

It turns out that many young people do. Academic research suggests that nearly one in three teenagers experience conditions of chronic anxiety. After graduating high school and attending three years of Toastmasters meetings, I’ve made it my job to talk to young people about my experiences and help them overcome their challenges.
After speaking to middle school and high school students at the Santa Monica YMCA, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Venice and various schools across the country, I can say confidently that anxiety is so prevalent that it’s become a major cause for teens being absent from school. Anxiety is becoming an epidemic, and we as a community need to have more open conversations about mental health, self-love and being in tune with our bodies — especially for our youth. For young people struggling with anxiety and students who just feel overwhelmed or burnt-out, here are my best tips for a successful school
year ahead:
• Establish routines that support a healthy and happy lifestyle, such as meditation, journaling, eating healthy meals, and stretching in the morning and before bed.
• Exercise every day! I love starting my day by moving my body and using my energy for something good.
• Limit your caffeine intake and avoid energy drinks.
• Surround yourself with healthy, happy and positive people.
• Be aware of your own thoughts, and be kind to yourself and others.
• Limit your screen time — especially social media — to stay focused on your life and being the best you. Overstimulation and comparing yourself to others is a major trigger of anxiety.
• Be that change agent in your friend group by starting conversations that are positive and encouraging. Open dialogue by asking other people how they feel, and you may be surprised by how much your experience resonates with other people. Everyone has their own struggles.

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