Child Safety - Miller & Zois

Teenage Anxiety: What is it?

Anxiety in Teenagers

You probably can guess that every teenager experiences anxiety to some extent throughout their adolescence. It’s a part of their changing hormones that cause a wide array of different emotions to appear. Feeling stressed and anxious about certain life events is a normal reaction in most cases, but studies are showing that anxiety disorders in teens are on the rise. Between the years 2007 and 2012, anxiety disorders in both children and teens increased by 20%. That’s a pretty significant jump, especially when you find out that now nearly 1 in 3 teens between the ages of 13 and 18 will experience an anxiety disorder.

When anxiety turns into a mental health problem, it can cause severe disruption in day-to-day life and have a negative impact on a teen’s social life and academic performance. Let’s dive into why teenagers feel so much anxiety and how you can help them cope with it.

What is the Difference Between Anxiety and an Anxiety Disorder?

Anxiety is a type of emotion that everyone eventually experiences. We all can recall a time where we felt overwhelmed with anxiety, usually due to stressful life events. It’s normal to occasionally feel anxious, but that is not the same thing as having an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders occur when someone feels chronically anxious to the point that it causes issues in their daily routine. Some of the symptoms of anxiety disorders include:

  • A feeling of panic or fear
  • Difficulty sleeping, restless sleep, or insomnia
  • Stomach aches or nausea
  • Tense muscles
  • Feeling physically restless and unable to sit still
  • Heart palpitations
  • Feeling dizzy

Adolescent Anxiety InfographicThe term “anxiety disorders” covers different types of anxiety, including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. When a teen is suffering from anxiety, it can take a huge toll on their wellbeing. They may feel extremely scared to go to school and try to avoid it by claiming they feel sick. It may not be an exaggeration either, anxiety can actually cause someone to develop painful stomach aches or other body pains. You may notice that their social life becomes less prominent or that they start to isolate themselves. It’s also very common for grades to suddenly drop, as they may feel anxiety when it comes to finishing schoolwork or going to class.

If you start to notice these signs in your teen, don’t automatically resort to getting frustrated or disappointed with them. A teen with anxiety needs professional help, not punishment. Punishing them for having these issues can make them feel misunderstood and even more anxious.

Why are Teens Experiencing More Anxiety?

It’s hard to tell what exactly is causing the increase in adolescent anxiety, and there are most likely several factors that contribute to the problem. Besides environmental factors, the chance that a teen develops an anxiety disorder also depends on their genetics, brain chemistry, and personality. If you have family members who have also struggled with anxiety, you can reasonably suspect that your teen may also have similar issues. Some other factors suspected of contributing to anxiety disorders include:

  • Teenagers feeling like they are under extreme pressure to succeed and achieve. Today, it’s becoming standard that you need a college degree if you want to have a good job. More and more teens are striving to get good enough grades to get into the college they want. Additionally, their generation relies heavily on standardized testing, which is often used as a measuring tool to gauge how successful a student is. This has created what’s known as a culture of achievement. If a student doesn’t feel like they’re achieving as much as the rest of their class, they can feel like a complete failure. According to a survey conducted by Higher Education Research, in 2016 41% of incoming college freshmen said they felt overwhelmed by all the work they have to do. This is a big jump from 28% of students in 2000, and 18% of students in 1985.
  • Public spaces don’t feel safe anymore. We are currently living in the age of school shootings, where it seems like shootings are taking place nearly every day. Every school nowadays conducts school shooting drills and lockdowns. Even though these are helpful to keep students safe, the drill itself can feel almost traumatizing. It’s hard for teens to wrap their heads around the idea that their own school isn’t a safe place to be anymore.
  • Social media is starting to affect teens’ mental health. These teens have grown up being completely connected to social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Whatever is being posted on these platforms can have a big impact on a teen’s self-esteem and worldview. Their social life thrives on being connected online, and it’s hard for them to not compare themselves to other people.
How Does Anxiety Affect a Teenager?

Anxiety disorders are not something to take likely. The effects of anxiety can have severe, long-lasting impacts in a teen’s daily life. Chronic anxiety can lead to other mental health issues like depression or substance abuse. There are unfortunately many cases where anxiety has led to teenagers to die by suicide.

Anxiety causes physical symptoms too, like body or stomach pain. Chronic anxiety can also lead to other chronic physical health problems, like migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, and even heart disease later in life. This really emphasizes how important is to get your teenager treatment before their illness progresses.

School performance is also commonly affected by anxiety. A teenager with anxiety may start struggling to finish their homework, participate in class, or even bring themselves to go to school. This leads to their grades suddenly dropping and may even cause teachers to grow frustrated with them.

How can I Help my Teen With Anxiety?

Adolescent Anxiety InfographicThere are several things you can do to help your child deal with anxiety. It’s important to know that many teens may not be aware that they’re even suffering from anxiety, which means it might be up to you to identify the signs. Here are some tips:

  • Educate yourself about anxiety disorders. Read up on the symptoms, causes, and treatment. The more educated you are on the subject, the better you’ll be able to react to your teen’s anxiety. Some warning signs to watch out for include:
    • Excessively worrying about regular parts of everyday life
    • Unusual changes in behavior, such as isolation or aggression
    • Avoiding school or slipping grades
    • Trouble concentrating
    • Difficulty sleeping
    • Acting out in strange ways, such as using substances
    • Complaining about chronic stomach pain, headaches, or general fatigue
  • Talk to your teen about how they’re feeling. Try to get them to open up on what really bothers them, what their main stress is, and what triggers their anxiety. Getting their feelings out and having someone validate what they’re experiencing can give them significant relief.
  • Take your child to a doctor for an evaluation. In moderate to severe cases of anxiety, a teen might need professional help to overcome their illness. Anxiety is treatable, and options such as therapy and psychiatric medication have been proven to effectively treat all types of anxiety disorders. The most common forms of anxiety treatment include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and SSRI medications (antidepressants).
  • Try to help their general wellbeing. Things like meditations, relaxation techniques, yoga, sleep therapy, and regular exercise can have a positive impact on someone’s mood. It’s important to note that these are not cures for anxiety, but they can be used as a supplement to other treatments.

If you suspect your teen is dealing with an anxiety disorder, there are steps you can take to help them. Anxiety can be properly treated with the right techniques, and there’s no need for your teen to suffer in silence. Don’t wait to reach out to your child about their illness or assume they can just grow out of it, anxiety can have serious consequences and needs to be addressed.

Sources and Additional Literature

Lee, P., et al. (2019). Child and adolescent adherence with cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety: predictors and associations with outcomes. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 48(sup1), S215-S226.

Truong, A., et al. (2019). Anxiety Disorders in Adolescents. Psychiatric Annals, 49(6), 251-255.

Stoddard, J., et al. (2014). Irritability in child and adolescent anxiety disorders. Depression and Anxiety, 31(7), 566-573.

Kendall, P. C. (Ed.). (2011). Child and adolescent therapy: Cognitive-behavioral procedures. Guilford Press.