“I’m feeling calm when I talk about it, but when it happened, I couldn’t go back to class. I had to call my mom and beg her to pick me up”. Many, many times have I heard this, the teen with me in session looking at me baffled and ashamed. Wishing they could explain what they were feeling in the moment; confused at their loss of control, wanting to minimize or dismiss what happened to them and feeling plain scared with having no answers.
Human beings need anxiety.
It is our most primitive and protective brain function. Without that jump in our bellies or tingling sensation in our hands, our ancestors may have had no idea that they couldn’t survive that cliff jump or take on a threatening wild animal. I always feel a rush of anxiety when I’m anticipating speaking in front of a crowd. A friend of mine looks wide-eyed at even the mention of rock climbing- even though he’s been on many, many enjoyable and successful climbs.
Everyone, including adolescents, needs anxiety. The physical sensations and anxious thoughts that our bodies experience when we sense danger signal to our brain and body: pay attention to your environment so you can protect yourself. Our system quickly readies itself to do this by sending a variety of hormones throughout the body so we can reach safety. And these hormones leave our body relatively slowly because they are considered essential for our survival and our nervous system wants easy and abundant access to them.
So, when is anxiety in your teen normal? And when does it become a cause for concern?
When it’s Normal:
Normal and healthy anxiety in teens is temporary and serves a purpose. Common situations teens experience anxiety in are:
- anticipating a first date
- an upcoming exam or final
- committing to something that is a significant growth experience, like a sports team, a job, a relationship, or driving
- going through a stressful time, like a breakup, change in friend group, or changes in family routines or members
When your teen feels anxious because of one or more of the above scenarios, the anxiety they’re feeling should match the situation, it should be temporary, and they should be able to go on with other aspects of their life with minimal difficulty. This doesn’t mean they won’t experience some discomfort or be distracted by their anxiety; it means they are managing it with expectable levels of support or schedule modifications. Appropriate anxiety may come and go and may range in intensity, but it changes and can be managed with simple coping skills like deep breathing or accessing and using positive thoughts.
When it’s Not:
Sometimes feeling anxious is more complicated. There are a few important indicators that can be picked up on to cue a parent their adolescent might be struggling with a clinical level of anxiety:
- anxiety levels seem to regularly interfere with the tasks of living, such as eating, sleeping, socializing, and performing
- feeling anxious is described as always present and isn’t connected to a situation
- other barriers to well being are present more often than not, like feeling ill, irritable, pessimistic, edgy or tense
- the anxiety is described as being accompanied by feelings of detachment, or a sense that the external environment is surreal or removed
Anxiety is common and treatable. Many teens have a time in their life when social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones converge in overwhelming ways and can bring on anxious feelings. The most common description I hear is that it feels scary when anxiety stops teens from engaging in their daily activities and social life. Debilitating (clinical) anxiety is painful for everyone, but keep in mind that during adolescence, the need for appearing acceptable and feeling a sense of belonging are at their highest points, making an anxiety disorder that much harder and possibly limiting for a teen.
If you’re wondering if therapy can help your teen who might be living with anxiety, reach out to Contact Me for a free consultation. I’ll let you know if your teen could benefit from therapy for anxiety or if it’s possible they might handle it on their own.
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