The transition period between childhood and adulthood is inevitably one of the most difficult periods in life. Fleeting friendships, first relationships, and bodily changes are just a few of the struggles that all teens experience.
It is nearly impossible to go through the teenage years unscathed.
The world is constantly changing for a teenager, and the only consistency is perpetual uncertainty.
Teenage anxiety is an issue that can severely impact one’s development, functioning, and sense of identity.
The Experience of Teenage Anxiety
Research shows that anxiety disorders (panic attacks, phobias, social anxiety, OCD) are one of the most common mental health problems in teens and adolescents.
First and foremost, it is important to understand what constitutes an anxiety disorder, and how it differentiates from everyday stress and worry. For many of us, it is difficult to remember that anxiety is not only a normal response to certain situations, but it is also adaptive. Anxiety triggers our “fight or flight” system, allowing us to prepare for danger by increasing the heart rate so that blood can be quickly pumped to our muscles should we need to escape or fight off danger. For example, if we come face-to-face with a hungry bear, it would not be in our best interest to practice meditation or deep breathing exercises in order to calm down. We need to react. Anxiety forces us to either attack (fight) or run away (flight). At the core of it, we rely on anxiety for our survival.
Teenager anxiety becomes problematic when it causes considerable distress or interference in everyday life. For instance, if you or your teenager is crying excessively or acting out, it may be indicative of some sort of anxiety issue. Or, if there appears to be consistent avoidance (missing class, faking ill, cancelling plans with friends), it could again be related to anxiety.
It is important to understand anxiety as instinctual reactions to a perceived threat or danger. Again, that fight-or-flight response kicks in, and we often see that teens react by fighting (yelling, becoming aggressive) or fleeing (avoiding situations/people). So often, teenagers struggling with anxiety problems can be misconstrued as “over-reactive,” “too sensitive,” or “stubborn.” These labels create additional problems for teens, because it shifts focus from the teen’s fears to the teenager’s personal attributes or self. Then, the teenager is stuck with the belief that he or she is the problem, rather than the fear.
Many people wonder how to distinguish normal stress from an anxiety disorder. In truth, this can be tricky, especially during teenage years when the body is undergoing so many changes as it transitions into adulthood. Teenagers (and their parents) should pay close attention to their behaviors—am I simply skipping a couple football practices or am I quitting the team? Do I just not feel motivated to study for my history test, or am I in danger of failing the class? Am I having problems with my boyfriend, or are all my friends and family commenting that I am acting abnormally? Also, pay attention to how feelings — Am I consistently noticing that my heart is racing and my palms are sweating? Do I always dread going to class or is it just because I have a presentation today? If we take a step back and examine our actions and feelings, we can more easily determine what might be normal or what might be problematic.
The Different Types Of Teenage Anxiety
The three most common types of teenager anxiety are teenager social anxiety, teen phobias, and teen panic attacks.
1.) Teenager social anxiety:
An intense fear of social and/or performance situations.
-Do you dread speaking in class, or engaging in conversations with peers?
-Do you constantly worry that others are evaluating or judging you?
-Are you always concerned that you will do something embarrassing or humiliating in the presence of others? If so, you may be dealing with teen social anxiety.
Research shows that social anxiety typically develops in adolescence, and it can occur over time or be triggered by a stressful situation. The feared social situations are either performance-based or interaction-based.
A performance-based situation includes public speaking, class participation, or eating in front of others.
An interaction-based situation can be going to social events, meeting new people, dating, or talking on the phone. Like all anxiety disorders, the feared social situation creates unwanted feelings such as a racing heart or trembling of hands, and leads to avoidance behaviors. This can have a particularly harmful impact on teenagers, for whom social interactions play a major role in identity and growing up.
2.) Teen phobias:
Another type of anxiety that can affect adolescents. A phobia is an intense and specific fear regarding an object or situation. Examples of phobias include spiders, heights, natural events (earthquakes, tornadoes), or enclosed spaces.
Again, the phobia leads to physical symptoms of increased heart rate, trembling, shakiness, and stomach pains. The teen feels anxious, and begins to avoid the feared object or situation.
A phobia can develop from being exposed to a traumatic event, or through receiving frightening information about something. Phobias can worsen throughout adolescence if not treated.
3.) Teen panic attacks:
Another type of anxiety that can affect teenagers. Panic attacks are a sudden rush of intense discomfort and fear, usually spanning around 10 minutes, and include symptoms such as racing heart, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, chills or hot flashes, dizziness, numbness, and/or a fear of dying.
Panic attacks often occur very rapidly and suddenly, and can be quite debilitating. Repeated panic attacks with co-occurring concern of having additional panic attacks can result in panic disorder.
Panic attacks can affect self-esteem, school performance, social and family relationships, sleep, and the ability to transition from different environments (i.e. school to home). Often times, teenagers become so worried that they might undergo a panic attack that they begin isolating from others, missing classes, and withdrawing from extracurricular activities. Panic attacks can create a sense of shame, which often times impairs the teenager from receiving proper care and treatment.
Why Seek Help Now?
Seeking anxiety help is very important for teenagers.
Adolescence is complicated by itself, and the addition of anxiety can be extremely impairing and overwhelming for those already struggling to transition from childhood to adulthood.
If you notice yourself or your teenager behaving differently or withdrawing from activities, it is crucial to reach out. Anxiety disorders are not likely to disappear on their own; in fact, without the appropriate treatment, the symptoms often escalate and increase in severity.
The therapists at the April Center specialize in the treatment of anxiety, and are highly trained to help you and your teenager take control of the problem and resume a happy and healthy life.