Teen anxiety is no fun. Stress helps the body prepare for a challenge. The senses are honed, the brain is alert, and the body is ready to spring into action. It’s a useful tool when a threat is imminent. Also, it’s considered a natural, and even a healthy, response by the human brain.
Anxiety in Teens: When Stress Goes Awry
Sometimes, however, this system can go awry. Teens with an anxiety disorder have a stress response that’s spun out of control. They have feelings of anxiety frequently, even when they’re facing no threat whatsoever. As a result, every day can be filled with stress and fear. This leaves one unable to function normally.
It can be frightening, but it can also be treated in an anxiety disorder treatment program. In treatment, teens can learn to understand the out-of-control response. They learn skills that can help control the behaviors.
Making a Diagnosis
Teen anxiety disorders are common. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 25.1 percent of people ages 13 to 18 develop some form of anxiety disorder. The term “anxiety disorder” refers to many different specific illnesses. All these diseases are considered anxiety disorders:
- Generalized anxiety. The teen worries excessively
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Teens translate their anxiety into a series of rituals that are designed to keep them safe
- Phobia. Teens develop a persistent fear of something that may not actually be dangerous
- Social phobia. The teen develops a persistent fear of other people
- Panic attacks. At random times, the teen is consumed with an intense bout of panic-related symptoms. This includes a racing heart, sweating and dizziness
- Post-traumatic stress disorder. Teens who experience some sort of trauma may be consumed with memories of the event.
Teen Anxiety and Testing
Obviously, these disorders are all quite different. In fact, a teen who is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder might not even be able to relate to a teen who has social phobia. They may not find that they have anything in common. Similarly, a treatment that works for a child with phobia might not work with a child who has obsessive-compulsive disorder. For this reason, doctors must take the child through a series of tests. This happens at the beginning of treatment to determine what, exactly, is affecting the teen. With this diagnosis firmly in hand, doctors can then develop a treatment plan to help the teen recover.
The Power of Therapy
Teens with anxiety disorders may not understand what is happening. They know the symptoms are unpleasant. But they may not understand that these symptoms are both unusual and unhealthy. Therapy is designed to give teens this type of awareness. The idea is to empower teens for change. Often, therapists use a technique called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
An article published in the journal Primary Psychiatry suggests that teens with anxiety disorders have a hyper-alert nervous system. They overreact when presented with even a minor problem.
Teen Anxiety and Physiology
The nervous system floods the body with stress chemicals. When those chemicals reach the brain, the teen believes that he or she is in danger. As a result of those thoughts, the teen behaves in ways that are harmful. The teen might avoid the situation altogether, engage in rituals, or simply endure feeling frightened and scared for hours on end. It’s impossible for therapists to keep the nervous system from overreacting.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Teens
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques can help the teen intercede when the brain begins to respond. When the negative thoughts arise, telling the teen that he or she is in danger, the teen uses logic to override those untrue thoughts.
In many ways, CBT is like a weight-training program. The teen identifies specific weaknesses. They then strengthen those weaknesses and move forward in a more powerful way. The teen needs to build those skills and do a series of exercises with a trainer to practice.
CBT and Lifelong Skills
A study in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology found that 56.5 percent of teens with generalized anxiety improved with CBT. These skills can stick with teens throughout their lives. One study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that 85.7 percent of teens who completed CBT six years prior had no symptoms when contacted for follow-up sessions. The lessons they learned in therapy stayed with them for a long time, and helped them heal.
Once again, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy isn’t used the same way by all therapists. The treatment is adjusted based on the specific anxiety disorder. For example, some teens with anxiety disorders benefit when parents attend therapy sessions with them. Others do not. The teen’s therapist takes these factors into account when designing the proper treatment program.
Medications for Anxiety in Teens
Some teens with anxiety disorders have chemical imbalances that present obstacles to healing. Until those imbalances are corrected, it’s hard for the teen to think clearly and participate fully in a treatment program. For these teens, medications may be helpful.
In many cases, however, these drugs can take weeks or months to resolve the teen’s symptoms. In addition, sometimes, teens can become frustrated or impatient with the medications or the side effects and they may stop taking them. Parents of teens who take medications should do their part to stay involved. Therefore, you must ensure that each dose is taken, per the doctor’s instructions. Abruptly ceasing medications could cause an adverse reaction for the teen.
What Parents Can Do
Watching a child struggle with anxiety disorders can be difficult. Sometimes, parents simply need to know that they can do something to help the situation improve. Taking action can be empowering. The Anxiety Disorders Association of America suggests that parents can help their children with these tips:
- Praise small accomplishments
- Stay calm if the child becomes anxious
- Stick to normal routines
- Withhold punishment if the child makes mistakes or doesn’t make progress
- Listen to the child and paying attention to the child’s feelings
- Lower or modify expectations during stressful times
In addition, parents should maintain close ties with their child’s therapist. Teens with anxiety disorders may downplay their symptoms or hide their true feelings. Furthermore, they may want to impress therapists or parents with their progress. It is important for parents to stay connected. Parents can ensure that the child’s treatment stays on track. Consequently, they can make sure the therapist has all the needed information to help the child heal.
In some cases, parents can participate in group counseling sessions with their child.
Some therapists use family counseling. The parent and the child meet with a counselor and improve their relationship. The parent might learn how to use positive language, instead of critical language. Therefore, the child might learn how to speak openly and honestly without lashing out or fearing reprisal. This sort of therapy has proven effective in children with anxiety disorders.
A study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that teens who participated in this form of therapy showed greater signs of improvement, than those who did not participate in this form of therapy. It’s also possible that the parents improved in this program. They learn how to build meaningful relationship with their teens. Therefore, long-term change is the result.
Finding Professional Help
At Newport Academy, we believe in the power of parents and we anchor our treatments within the concept of the family.
We think that including parents is one of the best ways to help a child heal. In conclusion, know that you are not alone. We are here to help. Please call us today to find out more about our programs.