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Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety in Teens

It’s not always easy to tell when typical teen stress crosses over into symptoms of anxiety in teens. However, teens with an anxiety disorder experience particularly high levels of anxiety, and these feelings get worse over time, rather than improving on their own.

Left untreated, anxiety disorders can negatively impact multiple areas of a teen’s life, including their ability to succeed in school and their relationships with friends and family members. In addition, adolescent anxiety can lead to co-occurring disorders, such as eating disorders and substance abuse.

What Is Anxiety?

Having anxiety is more than simply worrying too much. Worry refers to dwelling on troubles, difficulties, or uncertainties—most often concerns about the future or things that are out of our control. Anxiety disorders, however, are characterized by excessive fears and distress that are out of proportion to the situation, and impair a teen’s ability to function normally. Anxiety diagnoses include Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), social anxiety, separation anxiety, acute anxiety (such as panic attacks), and more. Read on to learn more about the different forms of teen anxiety.

What Causes Anxiety in Teens?

There can be many reasons why teens have anxiety. Research shows that anxiety issues are the result of a combination of genetic makeup and life circumstances. Between 30 and 40 percent of the factors related to anxiety disorders are genetic and can be inherited. Neurobiological factors may also impact the potential for anxiety symptoms in teens. Specifically, a disruption in how the brain reacts to the signals it uses to identify and confront danger can increase the likelihood of a teen anxiety disorder.

Of course, life experiences are a big part of what causes anxiety in teens. Childhood trauma, such as abuse, neglect, or the early death of a parent, can contribute to the development of childhood anxiety symptoms that progress into adolescence. In addition to this type of relational trauma, traumatic events like a car accident or natural disaster, and collective trauma, such as the COVID pandemic, can all increase an adolescent’s vulnerability to anxiety disorders.

Researchers and mental health experts also theorize that the following factors contribute to why teens have anxiety in increasing numbers:

  • Intense pressure to succeed in school and life: 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.
  • Constant access to news and information: Being plugged in all the time creates 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.

How Many Teens Have Anxiety?

According to the most recent teenage anxiety statistics, 40 percent of US teens report anxiety symptoms. Globally, one in every five adolescents experiences anxiety, according to a meta-analysis of 29 studies involving 80,000 youth. This review found that the prevalence of anxiety symptoms in teens around the world has doubled during COVID-19.

Even before the pandemic, however, teen anxiety was on the rise. Research on adolescent anxiety over time shows a clear increase in symptoms of anxiety in teenagers. A 2021 study found that teen anxiety went up by 10 percent between 2012 and 2018, with the most significant increases among adolescent girls and LGBTQ teens.

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How To Recognize Anxiety in Teens

In order to identify teen anxiety, it’s important to learn more about signs and symptoms. What’s the difference between signs of anxiety in teens vs. symptoms of anxiety in teens? Warning signs are behavioral changes that can be observed by parents, other family members, teachers, and peers. Symptoms, on the other hand, are a teen’s inner experiences, both emotional and physical, as they struggle with anxiety. That’s why both observation and conversation are necessary in order to take a teen’s mental health temperature.

The best way to identify warning signs of anxiety in teens is to observe your child’s behavior on a daily basis. Pay attention to their eating and sleeping habits as well as their moods. Notice whether their everyday activities and interactions have changed or diminished. Their performance in school is also a telling indicator of whether they may be suffering from anxiety.

When it comes to identifying anxiety symptoms in teens, maintaining ongoing, open communication is crucial in understanding your child’s state of mind and internal experience. In fact, regular parent-child communication can actually prevent mental health disorders from taking hold or getting worse. Research shows that symptoms of anxiety in teens are more common and more severe when adolescents’ connection with their parents has become weaker. So, while talking with a teen may not be easy, it’s worth the effort.

Signs of Anxiety in Teens

Here are some of the behavioral signs of anxiety in teens that parents and caregivers can watch for:

  • Performance dip in school, poor report cards, poor testing results
  • Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Noticeable drop in social interactions
  • Negative self-talk, such as “I can’t do this,” “I’m not good at anything”; or general negativity about life and other people
  • Trouble sleeping at night, exhaustion for no apparent reason, always worn down
  • Loss of appetite and disordered eating, inability to enjoy foods they used to love
  • Irritability and other changes in mood and behavior
  • Substance and/or alcohol abuse and other risky behaviors
  • Avoiding people, places, and things that trigger anxious feelings.

Symptoms of Anxiety in Teens

Anxiety symptoms in teens include the following internal experiences, both psychological and physical:

  • Recurring feelings of worry and stress about everyday life that feel impossible to control
  • Restlessness, jumpiness, being on edge
  • Constant sense of dread
  • Focusing on negative thoughts and outcomes, known as “catastrophizing”
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Having a hard time relaxing
  • Muscle tension
  • Stomachaches or headaches; digestive issues
  • Nausea, sweating, and shaking (particularly associated with social anxiety and acute anxiety)
  • Believing that worrying about something is the only way to prevent it from happening
  • Panic attacks.

If a teen shares with you that they are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, they might have an anxiety disorder. At this point, seeking a proper diagnosis and discussing appropriate care with a licensed professional is essential.

Common Forms of Teen Anxiety

The variation in signs and symptoms of anxiety in teens may indicate which form of anxiety disorder they are experiencing. According to teenage anxiety statistics, the most common forms of anxiety in adolescents include:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), the most common form of teen anxiety, involves excessive worry and distress over everyday occurrences. Teens with GAD typically experience intense emotional stress and low self-esteem, as well as a range of other anxiety-related symptoms.

Acute Anxiety

As opposed to chronic anxiety, which continues at a low or moderate level over time, acute anxiety refers to sudden and often unexpected periods of intense fear, also known as panic attacks. Symptoms of panic attacks include chest pains, rapid heartbeat, lightheadedness, difficulty breathing, and a feeling of doom or fear of death.

Social Anxiety

Also referred to as social phobia, social anxiety is triggered by social settings. Teens with social anxiety experience intense discomfort, distress, and embarrassment in social situations and interactions. Hence, social anxiety in adolescents can interfere with school and other everyday activities.

Separation Anxiety

While separation anxiety in childhood is common, teens experience it as excessive distress about anticipating or being away from home or loved ones. The pandemic has increased the potential for separation anxiety in adolescents: In a world that feels uncertain and dangerous, being away from home and family is more anxiety producing.

Phobias

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.

Other forms of anxiety include:

  • Panic disorder: Panic attacks are the main symptom of panic disorder. Late adolescence is the most common period for panic disorder to set in.
  • Anxiety related to school: While nervousness about going to school is not unusual, high levels of school-related anxiety may indicate a diagnosable issue.
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): OCD in teens can cause unwanted and disturbing obsessions that create extreme anxiety.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: PTSD is categorized as an anxiety disorder, and can also be an underlying cause of symptoms of anxiety in teens.

Why Treatment Might Be an Option

For teens with anxiety, treatment can make an enormous positive difference—now and in the future. While starting treatment can feel like a big step to take, it can be life changing for teens and their families. Anxiety disorders typically do not get better on their own, so it’s imperative to start treatment as soon as possible to avoid an escalation of symptoms that could potentially lead to a teen mental health crisis.

There are a variety of treatment options for teen anxiety, including weekly therapy, a Partial Hospitalization Program where teens participate in treatment and academics each day, Intensive Outpatient services after school, or residential treatment. Newport Academy offers a full continuum of care for adolescent anxiety, at locations across the country. Our clinical model addresses the underlying causes of teen anxiety in order to create long-term, sustainable healing.

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