Prepared by Chrissy Sunberg, M.Ed., AAC:
When you are asked to describe your teenager, what are some of the adjectives you would use? Moody, angry, nervous, sensitive or emotional? This stage of life is loaded with intense feelings and drama. Remember your teenage years? But while all of these feelings are age appropriate there has been a significant increase of teenagers who have reported having anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorder is the leading mental health issue among American teens, and clinicians and research both suggest it is rising. According to KidsHealth.org experts don't know exactly what causes anxiety disorders. Several things seem to play a role, including genetics, brain biochemistry, an overactive fight–flight response, stressful life circumstances, and learned behavior. There is no one size fits all solution or pill for anxiety but I do have a few logical and out of the box ideas that may help your teen ease some anxiety.
The Bully of the Brain
Teen anxiety is not only debilitating for your teen, it is debilitating for the whole family. People experience anxiety because the amygdala thinks there might be something it needs to protect you from. The amygdala is the security guard of the brain and it decides what is safe and not safe. If it feels like you are not safe, it’s very easy for the amygdala to get overactivated and can become the “bully in the brain”. When this happens, it surges your body with a mix of neurochemicals (including oxygen, hormones and adrenaline), designed to make you stronger, faster, more alert and more powerful so you can fight for your life or run for it. This is the fight or flight response. It’s normal and healthy and it’s in everyone. In people with anxiety, it’s just a little quicker to activate.
The amygdala can’t always tell the difference between something that might hurt you (like a basketball coming at your head) and something that won’t (like walking into school) – and it doesn’t care. All it wants to do is keep you safe.
Fight or Flight Over Drive
Everything you feel when you have anxiety is to do with your body getting ready to fight or flee, when there is actually no need for either. When there’s nothing to flee or nothing to fight, there is nothing to burn the neurochemical fuel that is surging through you. The fuel builds up and that’s why anxiety feels the way it does.
You may hear your teen say, “My stomach and head hurt!” and the above explanation is why. So, understanding why anxiety feels the way it does can be one of your greatest tools in managing it.
Resources and Strategies for You and Your Teen
Here are some other resources for families that are parenting teens with anxiety:
GoZen!: is an anxiety/stress relief program that can be found on-line: 6 modules that teach kids to understand and control their anxiety.
Mindfulness: many studies have shown that mindfulness can help ease anxiety. Here are some on-line resources and books that describe benefit of mindfulness. The goal of mindfulness is to become aware of our bodily sensations when we are anxious, and then using specific visualizations and breathing techniques to decrease that hijacked feeling to regain control and feelings of calm and well being.
Psycom.net recommends keeping a worry journal. It may help teens see how their anxious thoughts improve over time. Writing the worries of the day followed by one positive thought helps break the cycle of negative thinking that can exacerbate anxiety.
Providing your teen with coping mechanisms and a tool box may help with their anxiety disorder. If you find that the coping mechanisms that you and your teen created are not working in your favor can also find a therapist that can help them build these skills.
Dr. Liz Matheis
Dr Liz Matheis and her team specialize in assisting children and their families with Anxiety, Autism, AD/HD, Learning Disabilities and Behavioral Struggles