Anxiety is a typical human reaction to stress. Anxiety triggers our sympathetic nervous system—our body’s natural way of preparing to escape danger. Therefore, it has a purpose and can even help us get things done in our day-to-day lives. But, for some teens, anxiety levels can become unhealthy and even debilitating. When anxiety starts to affect a teen’s daily functioning, it becomes a problem.
What Is Teen Anxiety?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, there are several types of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and various phobia-related disorders.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, is the most common form of anxiety. GAD is defined as excessive and persistent worry about life issues. A teen with GAD may be anxious about school, the future, the well-being of a friend or family member, or other challenges. People with GAD may worry more than seems called for by actual events, and find it difficult to control their worry.
Some physical symptoms associated with GAD are headaches, tight muscles, vomiting, stomachaches, and fatigue.
Panic disorder is another type of anxiety disorder. A panic disorder can manifest as a panic attack—sudden feelings of terror when there is no actual danger. A panic attack is so terrifying that people who suffer from this disorder often do anything possible to avoid situations or experiences that may trigger it.
Panic attacks can happen anywhere, at any time, and without warning. This may cause problems in a teen’s everyday life. In extreme cases, panic disorder can lead to an inability to leave home for school, work, or social events.
There are several types of phobia disorders. Teens who struggle with phobias feel an abnormal amount of anxiety and fear about a specific thing, or several things. Even if their phobia is connected to something potentially dangerous, such as heights or insects, their fear regarding that situation or object is more extreme than reality warrants.
Anxiety in Teens
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), teens have higher levels of anxiety than adults. NIMH found that 19 percent of all US adults have suffered from an anxiety disorder in the last year, as opposed to nearly 32 percent of teens. In addition, teen girls suffer from anxiety disorders more than any other group. NIMH’s findings showed that 38 percent of female adolescents suffer from an anxiety disorder, versus 26 percent of male adolescents.
Why Are Teen Anxiety Statistics So High, and Why Is It a Problem?
Teen anxiety statistics are at an all-time high, and they seem to be only increasing. Research done by the National Survey of Children’s Health found that the rate of young people diagnosed with anxiety disorders between the ages of six and 17 increased by 20 percent between the years 2007 and 2012.
The Higher Education Research Institute found similar data for teens aged 18 and 19. In 1985, they asked freshmen at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) if they “felt overwhelmed by all they had to do.” In 1985, 18 percent said that they did. In the year 2000, 28 percent of UCLA’s first-year students felt overwhelmed, and by 2016 almost 41 percent of first-year students felt that way.
Cleary, evidence shows that anxiety in teens is at an all-time high. However, experts aren’t sure exactly why. Some leading theories include the following:
- The high pressure teens feel to be successful: Teens, more than ever, feel pressure to succeed. Surveys of eighth graders find that young people believe they need to pick a career as soon as possible, and are constantly comparing themselves to others in their class. Today’s high school students experience overwhelming levels of pressure regarding academic aptitude, athletic ability, and extracurricular engagement, based on the increased requirements for college acceptance and career advancement. Teens face intense competition regarding standardized testing, college admissions, and career planning.
- External influences can alter our perceptions: Having constant access to news and information can create heightened levels of anxiety in teens. It can be hard to feel safe when we are constantly faced with media focusing on negative news. For many teens, this leads to higher levels of anxiety.
- Social Media: A large body of research shows that teenagers who use social media often are more anxious and unhappy than those who don’t. Comparing themselves to others has a negative effect on well-being. Moreover, spending time online keeps teems from doing healthier activities, such as exercising or interacting with friends and family.
Untreated anxiety can be dangerous in several ways. For one, substance abuse often accompanies anxiety as a co-occurring disorder. Teens who suffer from anxiety disorders find temporary relief through the use of drugs and/or alcohol. The possibility of addiction intensifies when a teen is trying to self-medicate to alleviate anxiety. Alcohol and benzodiazepines are two examples of substances teens commonly use to self-medicate undiagnosed anxiety disorders. These substances affect the brain in a similar way, providing momentary decreases in anxiety. And they are also two of the most addictive and easily accessible substances for teens.
Furthermore, if anxiety remains untreated, the probability increases that a teen will attempt suicide. The National Center for Biotechnology Information found that 70 percent of people with a lifelong history of suicide attempts had an anxiety disorder. According to their research, “Anxiety disorders, especially panic disorder and PTSD, are independently associated with suicide attempts. Clinicians need to assess suicidal behavior among patients presenting with anxiety problems.
What Can Parents Do to Help?
When it comes to teen anxiety, early intervention is critical. Parents shouldn’t wait for a teen to “grow out of it.” It’s critical to seek help as soon as you see warning signs—before teens are abusing substances, developing suicidal ideations, or engaging in risky behaviors in order to relieve their anxiety.
Here are some simple tips:
- Pay attention to what your child is experiencing. Be aware that their feelings are very real to them, even if it they don’t make sense to you.
- Stay calm when your child becomes anxious. If they see that you are relaxed, it may help them to calm down. Rather than getting angry or frustrated, show compassion and understanding.
- Recognize and celebrate a teen’s achievements and their courage in facing anxiety.
- Don’t use punishment in an attempt to curtail anxiety; this is not useful or effective.
- Change your expectations during periods of high stress, such as during standardized testing or before events that you know will make your child anxious.
- If you take your teen to a mental health professional, be sure to let them know of any suspicions you may have of substance abuse or other harmful behaviors. Mental health professionals can provide anxiety-management tools and interventions.
Anxiety in teens is a rising problem. If you notice your teen is having anxiety-related issues and/or drug or alcohol misuse, contact us. We can guide you through the next steps to get your teen the help they need.