To help us start understanding and responding to adolescent anxiety, let’s begin by defining some terms, sharing some insights from research, and then viewing the topic within the layered context of a teenager’s lived experience.
It’s also heartening to note that the body of research shows anxiety can be treated when teens practice strategies consistently with a psychologist.
Let’s start with the definition of terms.
What is stress?
To understand anxiety, first you need to understand stress.
Stress is our body’s natural response to stressful or dangerous situations that feel beyond our capacity to cope.
A little stress is good for us (eustress) because it helps us stay engaged in our work or study, but too much stress is damaging to our health (distress).
Stress activates the autonomic nervous system and triggers what is called the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ defense response . Essentially, your body is preparing to protect itself from a perceived threat.
Our body undertakes a number of actions unconsciously and automatically to help us to combat, flee or become undesirable to the threat. These symptoms when more intense may include rapid breathing, increased heart-rate, and producing a rapid rush of adrenaline. This can make us feel like we have ‘butterflies in the stomach’, or cause our hands to shake.
At a milder level, stress may be experienced very temporarily as a feeling of being overwhelmed and worried with feelings of muscle tension. Stress in the form of mild challenges may be beneficial as it provides the brain and body a chance to rehearse and experience the effects of their adaptive response in preparation for any future challenges. In many cases these stressors are short term and the feelings pass rapidly after the stressor passes.
This autonomic nervous system activation is completely adaptive and critical for survival in situations where there is a significant threat like surviving a car accident. Sometimes though when we perceive everyday situations as consistently life threatening rather than challenging this may be unhelpful in situations such as public speaking, social interactions, academic deadlines or tests.
Some stress is good and helpful, but when we feel stressed unnecessarily or persistently over a long period of time (say, more than six months), this unhelpful stress response can develop into clinical levels of anxiety.
Stress is often short term in response to a recognised threat, but anxiety develops when the stress response becomes long term and lingers in situations after without an identifiable trigger and when it significantly impacts on daily functioning.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is often described by many people as a truly horrible feeling.
Clinically speaking, anxiety is a persistent fear or worry about several things that you can’t control. Anxiety has the potential to impair our ability to participate in work, study or home life.
Several associated symptoms include: restlessness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, or difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep.
When anxiety is experienced as severe, frequent, recurring, and persistent it may be classified as an anxiety disorder.
What are the different types of anxiety disorders?
There are several types of anxiety including:
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder – persistent worries about multiple things,
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – fears that lead you to repetitive thoughts and /or behaviours ,
- Social Anxiety Disorder – worry surrounding social interactions,
- Panic Disorder – short, intense fear lasting from a few minutes to 30 minutes generally
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder – specific impact after a traumatic event such as nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance
- Specific Phobia – – intense fear of something that poses little or no actual danger
- Separation Anxiety Disorder – fear from being separated from someone (i.e. a strong attachment figure such as a parent).
These types of anxiety all share common elements, but differ in terms where the anxiety is focused or how it is expressed.
Anxiety in teenagers
Surveys suggest the prevalence of anxiety in teens is between 10 and 20% in Australia today.
Teens experience many stressful situations (steep academic expectations, difficulty navigating complex social situations for the first time) often without knowing how to effectively deal with them.
Here’s an example.
Tom is 15 years old and is in Year 10.
He has been falling behind with his school work as it progressively gets harder.
He is disorganised, often procrastinates and leaves things to the last minute.
He finds himself getting easily distracted by playing computer games or streaming Netflix or TicToc. His worries are also increasing because he feels self conscious about his personal appearance. Overtime, these worries snowball until he is feeling anxious almost all the time, finds it difficult to sleep, gets very irritable, and often feels worked up. Tom receives some poor academic results and simultaneously gets bullied by a classmate. Tom thinks to himself, ‘I’m useless! I can’t do this! I’m never going to get into Uni. I don’t have any friends! I’m letting everyone down!’ and his thoughts start to spiral. Tom’s diet gets worse as he eats more sugary foods trying to get a dopamine hit. A vicious cycle has formed and Tom can’t make it stop.
Tom is experiencing anxiety because his stressors have developed into a persistent worry that is just not going away.
How do you start responding to adolescent anxiety?
If you are reading this, you are most likely to be a concerned parent.
Be alert for the signs and symptoms of anxiety.
Seek help early.
Visiting your GP is a great first step. They can measure your teenager’s symptom levels and give you a referral to a Psychologist under Medicare.
If your adolescent prefers to see us without seeing a GP they can access services under your private cover and do not need a referral to see us.
Psychologists can help by
1. Providing support with education about the autonomic nervous system response and how it affects the body, emotions, our thoughts, our behaviour and responses to our environment. This may include tailoring strategies to support the nervous system such as breathing and mindfulness strategies and learning how to be less judgemental of these feelings “e.g. it’s horrible, I must get rid of it now” that feed the vicious anxiety cycle and may lead to thoughts of failure and frustration.
2. Address the anxiety cognitively (addressing Tom’s negative thoughts about himself, his situation and the future).
3. Address the anxiety behaviourally by putting strategies in place to help him organise himself, study effectively and deal with complex social situations at school such as bullying.
Practising good ‘mental hygiene’ is essential to recovery
Good mental hygience includes:
- establishing a good sleep routine of around eight (8) hours per night from say 10pm to 7am;
- getting around 30 minutes to 1 hour of exercise per day to help release some of the negative effects of stress;
- reducing screen time and interaction on social media to less than 30 minutes per day to reduce the effects of self comparison and procrastination;
- reducing intake of caffeine, sugar, and, if applicable, alcohol, and removing drugs;
- developing good organisational skills like keeping a diary, working consistently in short sustainable bursts (an inch is a sinch, but a yard is hard), and breaking large tasks down into small chunks; and
- being kind to yourself by providing meaningful rewards throughout the recovery process.
I hope you’ve found this summary helpful and, of course, if you’d like to book an appointment to see a psychologist at Attuned Psychology, you can do so here.
Here is an interview with Fergus McPharlin, in which he discusses the content of this article
Is social media affecting my teen’s body image?
You can’t choose your family but you can choose your friends
Do we need Psychologists to give children and adolescents the performance edge?
“I’m Not Good Enough”: What’s Your Story?
Fergus McPharlin, Registered Psychologist
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