MOORHEAD — When you first spot Concordia College senior Mollie Francis sitting at a table at the school’s Knutson Campus Center, you immediately get the sense she’s someone others admire.

She’s a good student, hoping one day to be a physician assistant, and she was active in track and soccer in high school. She looks like any other smiling student athlete in the yearbook.

And in many ways, she is. Francis is one of a growing number of young people in the United States battling anxiety.

Anxiety is defined by the American Psychological Association as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes, such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat.” People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns and may avoid certain situations out of worry about what could happen.

“When I was a freshman and I’d be studying, I’d have these little panic attacks, like I don’t know this material and I'm not gonna be able to learn in X amount of time,” Francis says. She was also starting to lose weight.

“I couldn’t eat, nothing looked appetizing. I actually went to the doctor, and they ended up doing a lot of extensive testing in terms of different food intolerances because that's what we thought the issue was. Then I went to a gastroenterologist and they did an endoscopy. After all of that, we figured out it was anxiety,” she says.

Her story is all too common. Most children who end up with an anxiety diagnosis first complain about their stomach hurting. It’s a symptom they can easily explain.

What is harder to explain is exactly what is causing anxiety in teens and children and how we, as parents, can help them cope.

The anxious generation

In 2018, Pew Research polled 920 Americans between the ages of 13 and 17 to learn about the concerns faced by Generation Z, defined as those born roughly between 1995 and 2015. The survey found a generation less hedonistic, better behaved and lonelier than previous generations.

A full 70% of respondents called anxiety and depression a “major issue” among their peers. In a Harris poll, 91% of Gen Z respondents reported feeling some physical or emotional symptoms from stress.

According to the Child Mind Institute, nearly 1 in 3 adolescents will meet criteria by the time they’re 18 for an anxiety disorder, which includes generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or social phobias. And the incidence of anxiety more than doubles from the age of 13 to 18. High school students today have more anxiety symptoms and are twice as likely to see a mental health professional as teens in the 1980s.

“Anxiety is the number one thing I see people for,” says Tracy Hansen with Fraser Ltd.’s Valley Hope Counseling.

Hansen says she sees more adolescent girls than boys suffering from anxiety, but both genders face it. She likes to remind people anxiety is a normal emotion we all have, and we don’t want to get rid of it entirely.

“Anxiety serves a purpose. Anxiety helps us to be able to tell us when something is wrong and give us a warning sign. It’s the same alarm that went off back in the Stone Age times when there was a saber-toothed tiger ready to attack. It’s like a smoke alarm,” she says. “But you have to see if there toast burning or if there is a fire burning.”

For those with anxiety disorders, Hansen says it’s like the smoke alarm won’t stop going off, even when nothing is on fire. The anxiety — fear that something bad will happen — gets in the way of living their lives. They have disproportionate reactions to normal developmental experiences, like going to school, attending a party or staying at a sleepover or camp.

“I think there is so much more anxiety now, but people also don’t feel like they can cope the way they might have in the past,” she says. “It’s more common that we can talk about it. But I think the threshold of where people feel like they can cope is different. I think they’re calling anxiety unmanageable, when in the past it was just seen as stress.”

What’s causing all the anxiety in these young people? Hansen says Gen Z is growing up in a “scarier world” with school shootings, lockdown drills and gun violence. This generation’s heavy social media usage also isn’t helping, she says.

No matter the cause, Hansen says she tries to teach her clients how to better cope with the feelings prompted by their anxiety.

“Thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all connected,” she says. “Sometimes it’s about re-framing thoughts and recognizing thought distortion.”

Others plagued with anxiety get help with medications. Francis says a combination of medication and getting an emotional support animal, a cat named Oliver, has helped her in the last couple of years. She says “cuddling” with him every night calms her and helps her focus.

“My freshman year, I probably over-studied, and not studying in the right way," said Francis. "But when I got on the medication, it helped me channel that anxiety into healthy study — a more controlled way of studying.”

Francis, like many people, says she knows she might battle anxiety her entire life. The strength comes in recognizing what’s real and what’s not — empowering herself every day to conquer the imaginary saber-toothed tiger.

Tomorrow on Generation Anxiety: From social media to school shootings — what might be generating anxiety in Gen. Z.

Who is Gen Z?

Since generations can span two full decades, it’s sometimes hard to generalize the characteristics of those within a generation. But here are some perceived similarities of those in Generation Z, who were born between 1995 and 2015 and make up a quarter of the U.S. population.

Stay tuned for the release of "Generation Anxiety - From social media to school shootings what is making Gen Z'ers so anxious?"