When you’re the parent of a growing adolescent, you need as much parenting advice as you can possibly get.
Anxiety can be a normal reaction to stress and navigating life as a teenager can be incredibly stressful. But how do you know if it’s simply teenage struggles or something bigger?
In order to help your teen navigate this unsteady time of adolescence and learn how to deal with anxiety, you need to understand what causes anxiety and to spot the common signs.
First things first, what is anxiety?
Teenage anxiety is becoming more common in America. About 32 percent of all teenagers are currently diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Most likely someone you know or care about is struggling with severe anxiety.
Anxiety is what you feel in response to stress because your brain thinks you are in danger. That perceived sense of danger can be the result of something that physically causes you harm or anticipating it in the future, creating anxiety over events that have yet to happen.
Anxiety can also occur in the absence of thoughts or a trigger. Our brains are designed to work quickly to keep ourselves safe. Your brain will remember when and why you were stressed, so you can better be prepared next time.
The more your brain uses that remembered pathway, it is again reinforced and activates quicker next time.
To understand the signs of anxiety disorders in teens, it’s helpful to first understand how the brain creates anxiety.
The amygdala is the fear center of the brain. It is part of the limbic system, which manages emotions, memory and survival instincts. This almond-shaped structure is important for survival because it’s critical to prioritize what scares, hurts, or causes you danger. However, if your amygdala becomes over-reactive, it can create too much anxiety.
So when the amygdala thinks you are in danger, it triggers the release of hormones and adrenaline to activate the flight or fight response. The adrenaline and hormones send blood to your limbs. This makes you alert, stronger, and faster so you can defend yourself or run.
This is a normal and healthy response. But when it is activated when there is no real danger (i.e. anticipatory anxiety), this excess energy is experienced in our bodies longer, resulting in an overall anxious feeling.
Activation of the amygdala creates a strong emotional reaction that the hippocampus, another brain structure, remembers to keep you safe in the future. Unfortunately, it isn’t always the most accurate process.
For example, if your teen experienced panic when taking an exam, his or her brain may connect test-taking with danger. So with every exam, the teen may experience anxiety.
It can be hard to understand what your teenager is thinking at any given moment. Teens experience a constant, huge variety of physical, social, and emotional changes as they grow. In fact, the rate of brain growth in teens is second only to that in infancy.
With all of that happening, it can be difficult to identify an anxiety disorder. It is easy to chalk up everything to hormones, but it’s not always that.
Here are some common anxiety symptoms in teens.
- Skin picking (dermatillomania), pulling out hair (trichotillomania), and/or nail biting
- Frequent headaches, including migraines
- Chronic upset stomach, irritable bowel, constipation, or diarrhea (Look into the brain-gut connection. When the belly is out of balance, it can send messages to the brain that may create anxiety.)
- Difficulty sleeping or excessive fatigue
- Changes in eating habits
- Feeling edgy or riled
- Difficulty concentrating
- Irritable or restless
- Unexplained outbursts
- Avoiding social interactions with usual friends or isolating from their peer group
- Avoiding extracurricular activities
- Spending more time alone or isolated
- Poor school performance, missed assignments, or procrastination
Any of these listed items can be expected in teenagers without anxiety. However, these signs can apply to an anxiety disorder, as well. Focus on patterns and frequency of symptoms to determine whether an anxiety disorder needs to be addressed.
If you are concerned your teen may be suffering from anxiety that interferes with relationships, school, and other areas of daily functioning, it is important to get an evaluation from a mental health professional.
You can help your teen handle stress and anxiety and see which one seems to be a good fit for your teen and then suggest doing that tool together.