Stress, Anxiety & Teens

If you were to talk to almost any parent of any teenager in our culture today, the topic of stress and anxiety would most likely come up.  Today’s teens are constantly being rushed from one activity to the next, spending hours in the evening on homework and projects, not getting enough sleep, and are overstimulated from screens and social media.  When you think about the average day of a high school student, you can quickly understand why our teens are over-stressed. Most teenagers are up for their day between 6:00-6:30 in the morning. They then go on to endure a full day of school, facing rigorous academic and social pressures, then rush off to a sports, theater, or music practice. They get home in time for a late dinner and shower, only to begin their 2 hours of homework at 8:00, putting their bedtime at around 10:30 pm.  Then, instead of going to sleep, many teens stay up texting with their friends and browsing social media, leaving them sleep deprived as they begin this same routine the very next day. You can easily see why the stress level among teens is high.

One of the questions that our therapists get asked the most is, “When does stress become too much or turn into an anxiety problem?”  Stress is a normal part of our everyday lives. For example, it is normal for a teen to be stressed out about having 3 major exams in one day.  This type of stress is unavoidable and is usually circumstantial, meaning that it resolves after the stressor is gone. Stress becomes too much or becomes an anxiety problem when it occurs day after day for an extended period of time and begins to interfere with everyday life.  An example of too much stress or an anxiety problem for a teenager may be when he or she begins to suddenly forget to complete school assignments because his or her brain is overloaded with too much worry and stress. If this becomes a pattern over time, then the stress is interfering with everyday life and has become a problem.

The latest research shows that anxiety is on the rise among teenagers.  The latest CDC reports show that an estimated 31-33% of 13-18 year olds have high levels of anxiety that is interfering with everyday life.  This means that 1 out of every 3 teenagers you know is struggling with anxiety. Mental health professionals group anxiety problems into different “anxiety disorders.”  Some of the most common anxiety disorders are Generalized Anxiety Disorder (the most common type), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Social Anxiety Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Panic Attack Disorder, and Unspecified Anxiety Disorder.

When a teenager is having an anxiety problem, there may be mental, emotional, and physical symptoms present.  Some of these mental and emotional symptoms include: restlessness or being tense, difficulty focusing, not enjoying previously enjoyed activities, avoidance, “snapping” at people, and having feelings of impending dread or doom.  Some physical symptoms of anxiety include: changes in eating patterns, GI issues, changes in sleeping patterns, feeling tired or weak, shaking, uncontrollable crying, heart racing, shortness or breath, sweating, and tingling of the hands and feet.

If you suspect that your teenager may have an anxiety problem, hope is not lost.  Anxiety disorders are very treatable. The first steps for you to take begin with your decisions for your family.  You want to create a home environment that fosters peace and not stress. This means slowing down and making space for down time.  Furthermore, when faced with any activity or decision for your family, ask yourself this question, “Will saying “yes” to this create stress or peace in my home?”  Use this as a framework to guide your decisions. Another thing you’ll want to do is to look at how well you are managing your own anxiety and stress. If you are constantly stressed out then your teenager will feed off of that stress.   Set boundaries for your teen on screens and social media as social media apps feed stress. Make time for your teen to “unplug” and be present in real family life. Finally, make time to connect with your teen. Create a weekly time to check in and chat.  Maybe you and your teen go out for dessert on a certain night of the week or spend extra time talking at bedtime. Another idea is to have a communication journal. This can be used to write notes back and forth with your teenager, giving them a non threatening way to express their feelings and communicate with you.

After trying these strategies, if your teen is still overly stressed and dealing with high levels of anxiety, talking to a counselor or therapist is proven to be highly effective in treating anxiety.  We find that most teenagers who begin counseling are feeling significantly better in 6-8 weeks. They are also going to benefit from learning coping strategies to help them manage their anxiety in the future.  The reality is that life stressors will never go away. Helping your teen learn to manage his or her anxiety while still at home under your care is one of the best gifts that you can give to your child.

If you would like more information on how to help your anxious teen or would like to see if counseling would be a good fit for you, your teen, or your family, then please give us a call at 912-319-5552.  We would love to help your teenager learn how to deal with anxiety and feel confident, happy, and healthy again!