Everyone has times of feeling anxious, scared or fearful. In fact, our bodies have an innate ability to sense and respond to pending danger that helps us survive. Unfortunately, anxiety disorders can feel like a car alarm repeatedly sounding when there’s no real threat. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern for teens in North America, affecting an estimated 4% of all children, impacting their day-to-day life, friendships, school performance, physical health and their sense of well being. My colleagues and I at Shelterwood are concerned that in this modern, fast-paced, plugged-in world, anxiety disorders in teens are greatly increasing. We are seeing more teens than ever before that are constrained and made miserable by their fears when they should be feeling safe, secure, confident and happy.
Symptoms of anxiety include a rapid heartbeat, difficulty catching one’s breath, a sense of doom, sweaty palms, an upset stomach, and even nausea and vomiting. Focusing on the feelings can cause them to intensify, a vicious cycle. Anxious symptoms become a true anxiety disorder when anxiety leads to avoidance of the situation that is causing the anxiety and causes significant physical distress and disruption of daily life and functioning. An unresolved anxiety disorder can often lead to depression or substance use problems in future years.
Anxiety, however, exists on a spectrum. A certain amount of anxiety is normal and beneficial. It keeps our teens safe and conscientious; it motivates them to perform well. Teens who tend to be anxious are often model students: high achieving, diligent, analytical, sensitive, alert, creative and imaginative. Two little anxiety and a teen may take foolish risks or lack motivation to succeed. But too much anxiety and children become so paralyzed by fear that they may be unable to leave their parent’s side, leave the house, go to school, make friends or participate in normal life.
The good news is that anxiety can be very successfully managed or treated when required. Regular exercise and reliable routines in teens are often all it takes to quell mild cases. Mild and moderate anxiety is very responsive to cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a process of addressing in the unhelpful thoughts and actions that underlie anxiety. Other examples of types of therapy include stopping thoughts, talking back to negative thoughts, not believing everything you think, relaxation techniques such as breathing, mindfulness meditation, and gradual safe exposure to the things which one fears.
Teens and adults alike could benefit from learning simple techniques to turn off their body alarms that are sounding unnecessarily. In more long-term or severe cases of anxiety – such as panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder – treatment may include a period of anti-anxiety medication in addition to teaching the teen age-appropriate techniques.
If you’re worried about your teen’s anxiety, we would also love to visit with you and provide support.