Anxiety In Teens: causes, Symptoms And Treatment

Anxiety In Teens causes, Symptoms And Treatment

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Adolescence is the time of many changes, both physiological and psychological. The plethora of changes can be overwhelming for some teenagers and may lead to panic or anxiety attacks.

Considering the many moods your teenager has in a day (owing in part to hormonal changes), it may not be easy to tell if they are suffering from anxiety until they display extreme behaviors. According to research, around 25.1% of children aged between 13 and 18 years are affected by anxiety (1), which is worrisome. So it is important that you keep an eye on the growing teen to identify any behavior that is not typical.

In this MomJunction post, we tell you about anxiety in teens, its causes, effects on them, and ways to deal with it.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is the feeling of nervousness that arises due to fears or worries about unknown situations. Anxiety to a certain level is normal and can be helpful too, in some instances. Anxiety can motivate teenagers to complete their work at school or perform better at sports and help them stay alert at all times.

However, if the anxiety gets in the way of functioning in school and in relationships, then thoughtful attention and appropriate treatment must be considered. Anxiety in teenagers can result in poor academic performance, avoiding social experiences, and substance abuse.

Feelings of anxiousness vary from one person to another, as does the resultant behavior, based on the quality of the anxiety.

Different Types Of Anxiety Disorders In Teenagers

When a teenager goes through anxiety disorders, he/she may experience different symptoms. Based on that, anxiety disorders in teens are classified as follows:

  1. Social phobia or social anxiety: It arises when there is fear of social situations such as confronting a mass of people at a party or a gathering, or it can arise due to an embarrassing situation in public (2).
  1. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): It is related to intense fears or worries about everyday situations (3). Examples include constant worrying about health or family well-being without reason. Teenagers with this problem find it difficult to stop worrying.
  1. Specific phobias: It arises out of fears associated with situations and elements such as height, fire, or other objects that remind them of something in the past. Specific phobias also include unreasonable fear of certain animals such as snakes, spiders, lizards or dogs, etc. (4).
  1. Panic disorder: It leads to panic attacks that can arise due to stressful situations, resulting in loss of control. Panic attacks are associated with a racing heart as well as shivering and a feeling of dizziness and breathlessness (5). An unexpected face-to-face encounter with a fearful animal or a shocking experience, such as a near-miss accident, can trigger panic attacks in people.
  1. Agoraphobia: It falls under the group of specific phobias. However, the difference here is that the thought of fear itself makes the person avoid the situation (6). Examples include a fear of places from where it seems hard to escape or taking a roller coaster ride at the park.
  1. Separation anxiety: This condition may arise in a teenager when they do not want to get separated from but have to stay away from their parents, family or a prominent caregiver for some reason (7).

Anxiety in teenagers can develop due to various circumstances. The next section elaborates on it.

[ Read: Teenage Depression: Causes, Symptoms And Solutions ]

Causes Of Anxiety In Teenagers

There are several factors such as life-changing events, their own personality, people they encounter, etc., that can cause anxiety in teenagers. Common reasons for the development of anxiety disorders in teens are explained below (8).

  • High expectations: With increasing competition in academics and other areas, parents may unknowingly put pressure on their children to perform better in their chosen fields. This increases the stress level, especially in teens, to prove their worth to the parents and peers, paving the way for extreme anxiety.
  • Social media effects: Teenagers who are actively connected to social media could easily get influenced by the posts on these platforms. This could affect their self-esteem, thereby resulting in anxiety.
  • Scary and threatening situations: News stories on crime, natural disasters, and so on could be depressing and trigger anxiety in teenagers, especially those who have had similar experiences in the past. Teens with negative experiences may be anxious as they fear the situation or event could recur.
  • Depression: It is the most common cause of anxiety. Depression causes learning disabilities, low self-esteem, feeling of neglect, and emotional trauma to name a few, which further leads to anxiety (9).
  • Childhood effects: Children brought up in an unhealthy environment, where they’ve faced physical and/or emotional abuse and neglect (physical and mental), can develop anxiety by the time they are in their teenage years.
  • Gender or pubertal status: It can give rise to social anxiety symptoms in adolescents, especially in girls. The symptoms include dissatisfaction with their bodies, getting unwanted sexual attention, restricting gender roles, etc. Hormones are also believed to play a role in causing such anxieties (10).
  • Disapproval from parents: A teenager may want to experiment to try something new or focus on a hobby more than on academics, only to face criticism or objection from the parent. Constant or frequent disapproval from the parents can be frustrating and result in anxiety.
  • Brain development: Teenagers’ brains change significantly during adolescence, in keeping with their emotional maturation or mental development. These changes may be associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression (11).

So how can you determine if a teen is struggling with anxiety? The following section explains the symptoms of anxiety disorders in teenagers.

Symptoms Of Anxiety In Teenagers

Anxiety can last for weeks or months, and sometimes a lifetime. You may not be able to spot the signs of anxiety in teens straightaway. But closely observing them for any behavioral changes and symptoms listed next can help you detect it (12):

Emotional and behavioral symptoms:

  • They might become restless, agitated, and tense.
  • They’re sensitive to criticism or may be extremely uncomfortable in social situations.
  • They worry too much about a situation and are always expecting the worst to happen.
  • They avoid new and challenging situations.
  • They tend to isolate themselves or shy away from participating in social activities.
  • They find it difficult to get rid of obsessive thoughts.
  • They may feel compelled to do something in a particular way. Examples include touching the doorknob twice before opening the door or turning on and off the light a specific number of times before finally switching it off.

Physical symptoms:

  • Sore or tense muscles.
  • Urge to urinate frequently.
  • They may have chest pain, racing heart, headaches, sweating, stomach aches, dry mouth, and abdominal pain.
  • Trouble sleeping.

Mental symptoms:

  • Trouble focusing on something.
  • Get easily distracted.
  • Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty in completing a task, especially a school homework.

If you are not able to figure out the symptoms, you could consider getting a professional opinion for an accurate diagnosis. The clinician may check for the symptoms mentioned above and also test for physiological disorders before they consider or confirm anxiety disorders.

Treatment depends on the diagnosis and the type of anxiety disorder that the child is dealing with. Read on to know more about it next.

[ Read: Teen Stress: Causes, Management Tips ]

Treatment For Anxiety In Teenagers

A doctor will first try to understand the moods and behaviors of the teen. They will also use screening tools such as the Pediatric Symptom Checklist (PSC) that evaluates a teen on various mental aspects. Early diagnosis of the symptoms makes it easy to treat anxiety disorders in teens (13).

Treatment for mild to moderate anxiety (natural ways) includes:

  • Adopting a healthy lifestyle, which includes enough sleep, proper nutrition, and physical activities. Counseling also uses different techniques to deal with anxiety in teens.
  • Dealing with anxiety-causing issues by confronting them in different ways.
  • Reducing stress through relaxation and meditation.
  • Using online platforms to discuss the issues with other teenagers or even adults struggling with anxiety.
  • Executing time management strategies to cope up with the pressure of studies or exams.
  • Spending time with pets, especially dogs, at home can help in reducing symptoms of anxiety (14).

Treatment for severe anxiety (medication):

Two common treatments for anxiety disorder in teens are cognitive‐behavioral therapy (CBT) and SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) medications (8).

  • CBT: It focuses on exposing teenagers to situations that frighten them and helps them confront their fears. The therapy involves relaxation techniques such as muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and self‐talk.
  • SSRIs: These are antidepressants, also used for treating anxiety disorders.

Studies suggest that a combination of CBT and medication for 12 weeks can result in 80% positive response from teens with anxiety disorders. Research also indicates that CBT alone has resulted in 60% of positive response.

While SSRIs can be effective in the short term, evidence of positive long term effects is lacking. The side effects are significant and there is increasing evidence of difficulty getting off these medications. They should only be considered when the symptoms are severe and a teen is unable to engage in relationships or developmentally appropriate activities (15).

Besides the recommended treatment, you can follow a few things to help your teen deal with anxiety.

How To Deal With Teenage Anxiety At Home?

The best way to help a teenager struggling with anxiety is to start with basic home care tips mentioned here (12):

  • Try to understand the fear that they are struggling with. Support them in finding ways to cope with the situation and show that you care for them.
  • Encourage them to do things that they fear, but never force them.
  • Extend your help when they feel anxious about something.
  • Praise them when they do something that could actually make them anxious.
  • Use positive terms like ‘brave’ and ‘strong’ to help them overcome their fears.

Anxiety is curable with the right treatment approach and following the home care tips we mentioned above. As a parent, you can try and prevent anxiety in teens by developing a strong bond with them. Taking steps to manage your own reactions so that you are able to listen calmly is critical and may be among the most difficult parts of supporting your teen who is struggling. A healthy parent-child relationship allows children to open up about their problems and seek help from the parents before things get out of hand.

[ Read: Insomnia In Teens ]

Did your teen have any anxiety issues? How did you deal with it? Share your experience with us in the comment section below.

Reference links:

1. Childhood Anxiety Disorders; Children’s Health Council
2. Social anxiety disorder; HealthDirect
3. Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD); HealthDirect
4. Phobias in Children and Adolescents; Stanford Children’s Health
5. Panic disorder; HealthDirect
6. Agoraphobia; HealthDirect
7. Separation anxiety; HealthDirect
8. Anxiety in Teens is Rising: What’s Going On?; American Academy of Pediatrics
9. Understanding Teenage Depression; Stanford Children’s Health
10. Julianna Deardorff, Chris Hayward, et al.; Puberty and Gender Interact to Predict Social Anxiety Symptoms in Early Adolescence; NCBI
11. The Teen Brain: 6 Things to Know; NIH
12. Anxiety disorders in teenagers; Raising Children Network
13. Anxiety in teenagers; HealthDirect
14. The Power of Pets; NIH
15. Fava GA, Cosci F; Understanding and Managing Withdrawal Syndromes After Discontinuation of Antidepressant Drugs; The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry

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Claudia M. Gold

Claudia M. Gold is a pediatrician and writer who practiced pediatrics for over 20 years and currently specializes in infant-parent mental health. She is on the faculty of the Infant-Parent Mental Health Fellowship Program at University of Massachusetts Boston, the Brazelton Institute at Boston Children’s Hospital, and the Berkshire Psychoanalytic Institute. She has written 4 books: The Power of Discord... more

Sagari Gongala

Sagari was a math graduate and studied counseling psychology in postgraduate college, which she used to understand people better. Her interest in reading about people made her take up articles on kids and their behavior. She was meticulous in her research and gave information that could be of help to parents in times of need. An animal lover, vegan, and... more