by Cara Batema
You probably remember what it was like to be a teenager: exhausted by schoolwork or extracurricular activities, overwhelmed by peer pressure and the desire to fit in, consumed by the emphasis on good grades so you can get into a reputable college and new or heightened awareness of sex and changes in your body. With all that stuff going on, it’s no wonder teens experience anxiety.
Facts About Anxiety in Teens
According to the Child Mind Institute, nearly one in three teens meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder by the age of 18. Teen girls are more likely — sometimes twice as likely — to have anxiety than boys. Researchers believe that the body and brain changes that occur during adolescence impact the prevalence of anxiety disorders, and since girls tend to mature in their emotional recognition quicker than boys, they are more likely to experience symptoms.
Explaining Anxiety to Teens
Many teenagers express a longing to fit in, and while anxiety in teens varies from individual to individual, they often just want to feel “normal.” It’s important to explain to your teen that anxiety is normal. It really began as an adaptation to prepare our bodies for a real danger, such as a hunter-gatherer coming across a bear in the forest. Anxiety triggers our “fight or flight” response, in which we must choose to stay and fight a threat or run from it, and this adaptation helped humans evolve and survive as a species.
Today, we still have this so-called “anxious arousal” response, but sometimes it occurs in the absence of actual danger. Sometimes our brains can’t tell the difference between a real bear in the forest and a perceived bear. When this anxious alarm system goes off, people with anxiety have racing thoughts, physical responses like racing heartbeats or sweaty palms, and resulting behaviors. For example, social anxiety in teens causes them to think they’re not cool enough for a peer group, and they might blush or trip on their words when speaking to their peers, so they avoid social gatherings. Once your teen can see anxiety for what it really is — a collection of biological responses to a stimulus — it can help them cope with the symptoms. They’ll realize that no, they’re not crazy, there’s nothing “wrong” with them and they don’t need to be “fixed.”
The next step for helping teens with anxiety is to practice awareness. Physical responses to anxiety include muscle cramps, stomach ache, headache, accelerated heart rate, excess perspiration, trembling, rapid breathing and lightheadedness. These symptoms can lead to racing thoughts, which can be generalized (“There’s something wrong with me” or “I feel like I’m dying”) or situation-dependent (“What if I ask this girl out and everyone laughs?” or “What if I don’t get a good score on the SAT?”). Avoidance is the most common result of these thoughts and body sensations. It’s important to point out this sequence of symptoms to teens and have them practice recognizing when they occur. Does your teen get an upset stomach before every test? Did they quit a club because they want to avoid talking to peers? Do they avoid going to school after they’ve seen a school shooting on the news? Is your child being bullied on social media?
When your teen recognizes their patterns, they’ll be better able to make a change. For example, if they experience nausea before a test, they could practice deep breathing or have a small snack just before the exam. Anxiety Canada suggests posing “what if” scenarios to help your teenager recognize their behavior. For example, ask your child “If your anxiety magically disappeared, what would you do?” or have them complete the sentence, “When I’m not anxious, I will be able to … ”
Finding the Right Therapy
Your teenager may need a variety of tools to manage their anxiety. One way you can help is by listening without judgment. Offer reassurance and reminders of successes. For example, if your child was nervous about joining a club but managed to go to a meeting and have a good time, remind them of that the next time they feel anxiety about joining something new. Brillia is another instrument you can add to the mix. The active ingredient in Brillia is the antibody to the S-100 protein, which the brain releases during times of stress and causes symptoms of anxiety, so it addresses the root cause of symptoms.
Another part of your teen’s toolbox might include professional help from a licensed therapist. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and exposure therapy are all recognized therapies for anxiety disorders. These therapies address how your teen thinks and includes mindfulness and relaxation techniques to address the behavioral and physiological responses to anxiety.
Some teenagers experience anxiety above and beyond what is typical for adolescents, given their demanding lifestyles and biological changes going on within their bodies. By explaining in black and white what their anxiety means and challenging them to acknowledge and address their fears, your teen should feel some relief. Add tools like mindfulness and Brillia to guide your teens through what is admittedly a difficult period in their lives.
Cara Batema is a musician, teacher, and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs, and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science, and health.