What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a broad description of multiple different mental disorders. Some of the more common anxiety disorders are specific phobias, panic disorder, separation anxiety, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, selective mutism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Anxiety can look different in different people, but it is generally an overreaction of the sympathetic nervous system, or fight, flight, or freeze response, so something that is perceived as a threat when it is not. Teens today worry about school performance, college admission and scholarships, others’ perceptions of them, and their changing bodies. Some amount of anxiety is normal and healthy, it motivates us to achieve and excel, but often the symptoms of anxiety can become overwhelming and lead to unhealthy effects on the brain and body. There are many outward symptoms of anxiety to look for in teens and different teens may have different combinations of symptoms. Some symptoms include:
- Recurring worries about many things, frequent need for reassurance
- Irritability or anger
- Body dissatisfaction
- Inability to focus
- Extreme self-consciousness and sensitivity to criticism
- Withdrawal from friends or activities
- Avoidance of stressful or new situations
- Frequent physical complaints
- Substance use
How Can I Help My Teen?
Anxiety disorders may be on the rise, but the good news is that there is hope and help for teens who may be feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed by anxious thoughts and worries. Some good preventative measures can be helpful to incorporate into a healthy lifestyle that can lower a teen’s risk for developing an anxiety disorder but be aware that sometimes genetics play a larger role. Risk factors include genetic predisposition, social isolation, parental overprotection or parental indifference, a temperament prone to behavioral inhibition (fear-based temperament from childhood), high screen time, low physical activity, poor nutrition, and poor sleeping habits. Research suggests that teens with less than 2 hours of screen time have a significantly lower risk for anxiety and this is noteworthy. It may be due to the sleeplessness teens experience when they stay up too late watching videos or movies, or the lack of physical activity that occurs when teens spend too much time on screens, but it is something to pay attention to in lowering the risk of anxiety disorders. It is also important that teens are getting enough sleep, well-rounded nutrition, and regular physical activity to combat the effects of too much stress on their bodies. The best strategy for parenting teens who worry a lot is to acknowledge and empathize with the teens’ feelings while also not giving too much credit to the worry or fear. Showing your support for hard emotions is important but giving too much attention to worry can make it grow.
Even when all the preventative measures are taken, some teens have a predisposition to anxiety disorders and may need extra help to learn to manage and overcome the symptoms. Seeing a counselor who can help them learn to combat those anxious thoughts, and tolerate the discomfort through exposure, mindfulness, and coping skills will lead to a healthier and happier life. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy combined with mindfulness strategies has been shown to have great success in combatting anxiety. Medication may be needed by some as well to receive the full benefits of therapy. It is important not to ignore your teen’s overwhelming anxiety symptoms because untreated anxiety can lead to substance abuse, depression, and even suicidality. Children who are exhibiting behavioral inhibition, fear of strangers, or new activities, have a much higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder as a teen and young adult and would benefit from earlier treatment as a preventative measure. Anxiety is a normal part of life for everyone, and a certain amount can be beneficial, but when teens get overwhelmed and do not have the skills to cope or manage their symptoms, the problem can grow and become unmanageable. Offering support, modeling healthy habits, and encouragement of healthy lifestyle choices can make a big difference in preventing your teen from developing an anxiety disorder.
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