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Natural Awakenings

Teen Anxiety: Learn to Read the Signs and Discover Ways to Help

Feb 01, 2009 03:00AM ● By Dr. Lawrence Shapiro

Everyone worries, frets or feels uneasy much of the time. Worry itself is not bad when it serves as nature’s way of keeping us safe and sound.

If we’re concerned about our weight, for example, we tend to eat a better diet. If we’re discontented about money, we work harder or save more. If we worry about our kids, we do all of the things needed to keep them healthy and happy.

Teens experience their own set of normal worries: getting good grades; other teens’ opinions of them; the state of their complexion; and their clothes. We also hope they show concern for family rules and responsibilities.

But, worry becomes a problem for teens and their parents if young people stress too often or about things that don’t really matter. Psychologists refer to worry and its accompanying physical changes as anxiety, and too much anxiety can take a serious mental and physical toll on a teen.

Common Conditions

Several types of anxiety disorders may affect teenagers. Simple fears—of talking in public or doing poorly on tests—can cause distress. When teens harbor lots of fears, they can become overwhelming and lead to a panic disorder, making them afraid even to leave the house.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a severe problem that affects about 1 in 100 teens. They often hide their worry about things that are inconsequential to others, such as germs on a doorknob or cracks in a sidewalk, and may develop elaborate rituals to deal with their irrational ideas.

Another diagnosis, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), causes teens to worry throughout the day and may precipitate physical problems like fatigue, headaches and insomnia.

Everyday Aid

Anxiety affects more teens than most parents realize, because they are adept at hiding their problems. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need help. If we suspect that a family teen worries too much, here are some simple suggestions to try.

•Encourage practice of daily relaxation techniques, like yoga, deep breathing, or just listening to calming music.

•Help them think positively, identifying the positive outcomes of a problem, rather than the negatives.

•Encourage a healthy lifestyle, including good nutrition, daily exercise and a regimen of eight to nine hours of sleep. These habits stimulate the brain to produce stress-fighting chemicals.

•Facilitate connections with others. Anxiety can lead to social isolation, which worsens the problem.

•Teach problem-solving skills, such as making a list of solutions to a challenge, comparing possible outcomes, and then trying the best one.

•Encourage discussions about worries; if not with parents, then with a school counselor, good friend or understanding relative. 

These practices can be useful to everyone. They are cornerstones of good mental health, and experience proves that teens do better when their parents provide positive role models.

Act Today

If we think that a teen is troubled by anxieties, we shouldn’t hesitate to seek professional advice. A physician or psychologist can help determine whether a teen’s worries are typical of their age or are symptoms of a disorder that needs treatment. It is worth noting that anxiety disorders are commonly seen in combination with other problems, ranging from depression, eating disorders and attention deficit disorders to drug abuse.

The good news is that therapists have made great strides in treating anxiety disorders, usually using a type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavior modification, combined with relaxation training. If a teen’s anxiety problems are affecting her school work or school attendance, then the school psychologist should also be involved. If anxiety problems are affecting a teen’s social life, then social skills training may be advisable.

Talk with a loved teen about any suspected problems today. Even though he may shrug his shoulders, stare us down or even slam the door in our face, smart parents understand that adolescence is a time to step closer to a child, not away from them.

Although teens may resist our efforts and remind us that they are “not kids anymore,” our role as a parent does not change. Teens continue to need structure and support as much as they do in childhood; when they are worried and anxious, they need it—and us—even more.

Lawrence Shapiro, Ph.D., is a nationally recognized parenting expert, author and editor of the Instant Help series of workbooks, published by New Harbinger Publications. The Anxiety Workbook for Teens, by Lisa Schab, one of the most popular, provides a practical, step-by-step program for teens.

Related Article:  New Youth Mindfulness Retreats


Use Your Mind

•Remind yourself that you are not in danger. You are just having an exaggerated experience of a normal reaction to stress.

•Remind yourself that you can manage the uncomfortable feelings.

•Instead of thinking thoughts like, “Oh gosh, this is awful. What’s going to happen to me?” think, “Okay, I recognize these feelings. I know exactly what to do to release them and I’ll do it now.

Use Your Body

•Find a place where you can sit down. If you are outside, lean against something solid.

•Begin to slow your breathing by taking long, deep breaths. Remember that breathing deeply will bring needed oxygen back into your body, stop your heart from racing and eliminate any tingling or dizzy feelings.

•Look around and notice all the normal things going on around you. Focus on that normalcy as you allow the fearful symptoms to pass.

•Do other things that feel comforting to you and help relieve anxiety. Some people sip cool water, some lie down and close their eyes and some put a cool cloth on the base of their neck.

Adapted excerpt from The Anxiety Workbook for Teens by Lisa M. Schab. Used with permission.
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