Mike San Martino
Anxiety has now surpassed depression as the number one reason teenagers seek out therapy. Teens have many reasons to be anxious these days – global fears, COVID disruptions, school pressure, peer pressure, social media fatigue, body issues, and helicopter parents, just to name a few.I was talking to with a teen recently who described his anxiety as “a constant pressure, closing in on me, a low-grade tension that never goes away but sometimes gets more intense and scares me like I am going to have a heart attack.”
Teens are nervous about their circumstances and even more stressed about their futures. The current generation of teens faces more pressure to be successful at an early age than any previous generation. Many elementary school and middle school kids are afraid to make mistakes or do anything else that might jeopardize their future. Parents unknowingly add to their stress with their own anxiety.
Common Signs of Anxiety in Teens
All teens experience anxiety at times. Anxiety from the release of adrenalin and cortisol as a reaction to stress is common and even helpful for teens in intense and overwhelming situations. Musical recitals, stage performances, sporting events, classroom discussions, oral reports, exams, flirting, or going on a date can quicken the pulse, increase heart rate, and cause excessive sweating.
The brain is doing its job applying the gas pedal and activating the sympathetic nervous system (flight, fight, and freeze response). But the brake is not activating the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).
For some teens, anxiety can ramp up beyond typical symptoms and the brake does not get applied. In these cases, anxiety can negatively impact physical health, academic focus, relationship quality, and normal living.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 32% of 13- to 18-year-olds have an anxiety disorder, and over 8% have a severe anxiety disorder. The prevalence of anxiety is higher in girls (38%) than in boys (26%).https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml
Teens often have dramatic mood swings and hormonal changes that make it challenging for teens and their parents to notice a problem with anxiety. Teens will often wonder if their stress and anxiety are normal or whether they have a problem and need to get help.
Here are a few common signs of anxiety to watch for:
- Prolonged irritability, uneasiness, restlessness
- Excessive worry and fearfulness
- A pattern of sudden outbursts
- Regularly avoiding friends and social engagements
- Isolation from a peer group and spending the majority of time alone
- Frequent unexplained physical ailments such as headaches, migraines, fatigue, stomachache, racing heartbeat, feeling suffocated or dizzy, complaints of not feeling well
- Change in eating habits
- Sleep interruption (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends teens aged 13-18 get 8-10 hours of sleep on a regular basis for optimal health)
- Difficulties focusing at school, a sudden drop in grades, procrastination, and trouble concentrating
- A feeling of dread or impending danger
If you’re a teenager experiencing frequent anxiety or a parent with one or more teenagers in your home, I hope the following tips for overcoming anxiety will be helpful to you.
Three Strategies Teens Can Use to Reduce Anxiety
1. Mind-Body Awareness
The first strategy is to be aware of your mind and your body when you start to feel anxious. Anxiety starts in your brain. Think of your brain as having a gas pedal and a brake. How would you like to drive a car with no brake? You would have to drive very slowly and avoid all hills!
When you are stressed, your amygdala (in the frontal lobe of your brain) signals the rest of your brain you are in potential danger. You don’t feel safe, and your brain tells you it’s time to react. Your hypothalamus (the control center of the brain) picks up the distress call and sends it out to the rest of your body.
Adrenaline and cortisol are released. You become more vigilant, your sight and hearing improve, and it all happens fast. The gas pedal gets pushed as long as your brain thinks you are in danger.
Once the threat ends, cortisol levels should fall off and the brake should start to take over. But with a panic attack or chronic anxiety, the gas pedal is doing its job, but the brake is not working. What do you think happens to your body when the gas pedal is doing its job, but the brake is not working?
Your body gets exhausted, you have difficulty sleeping, relationships are impacted, and you experience more anxiety and stress. Being aware of what is happening in your mind and your body when you are anxious is the first strategy to overcoming your anxiety and stress.
Two good questions teens can ask themselves when they are stressed are: “How did this experience make me feel?” and “What am I feeling in my body right now?
2. Deep BreathingWhen you feel anxious or stressed, you need to find a way to activate the brake in your brain. Deep breathing is one effective way to do so. It tells your brain to slow down, be calm, and relax. If you are regretting the past or worrying about the past, breathing deeply can help you re-engage in the present.
Slow, deliberate, deep breathing from your belly indirectly stimulates the nerve running up and down the core of your body. When this nerve is stimulated it can calm the amygdala, engage a parasympathetic response in your central nervous system, lowering your heart rate and blood pressure.
Here is a simple but effective breathing exercise you can try right now:
How to do it:
- empty the lungs of air
- breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds
- hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds
- exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a “whoosh” sound, for 8 seconds
- repeat the cycle up to 4 times
Deep breathing can lead nicely into a time of prayer.
The third strategy is prayer. Prayer triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, setting the brake, helping our bodies “rest and digest.” Prayer can help you settle you down, and allow you to rest, and allow you to trust. The great thing about prayer is it is a habit that can be developed at any age. It can be practiced at any time and in any place.
God knew his people would need to find rest and peace in the midst of stress. Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
When you feel anxious or exhausted, Jesus invites you to come to Him and exchange your anxiety for His peace. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’” (Matthew 11: 28-30).
Just reading this verse is relaxing! You may want to print it out and keep it on the back of your phone as a daily reminder of God’s promise to bring you rest. Remember, prayer does not have to take long to be effective.
If you read the Gospel of Luke, you will see Jesus pausing to pray early in the morning, in the middle of the day, or alone at night. The great thing about deep breathing and prayer is you can do these exercises anywhere at any time in your day.
Things Parents or Caregivers Can Do to Help Teens Handle Anxiety
- Parents or caregivers can help create an environment based on self-worth and personal value rather than performance and perfectionism. Teens constantly hear the message “I am not good enough”.
- Parents or caregivers can model how to talk about fears and pressures.
- Parents or caregivers can listen when teens share. Teens often complain that their parents do not listen, they only give advice.
Christian Counseling for Anxious Teens
If your teen appears to be struggling with anxiety that interferes with school, friendships, family relationships, or other areas of daily functioning, it’s important to get an evaluation from a licensed mental health practitioner. Anxiety is treatable, and most teens can learn to cope with and manage their anxiety independently.
At Seattle Christian Counseling we are prepared to treat many different kinds of anxiety disorders including the following:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Panic disorder
- Past-traumatic stress disorder
- Hoarding disorder
- Specific phobias
A great resource for parents and teens is How to Help Your Anxious Teen, by Jessica Thompson.
If you need help handling your anxiety and would like a counselor to listen and walk alongside you, feel free to contact me or one of the other counselors at Seattle Christian Counseling.
“Concerned”, Courtesy of Kyle Broad, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Frowning Man”, Courtesy of Oliver Ragfelt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Waiting by the Bus”, Courtesy of Austin Pacheco, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Three Friends”, Courtesy of Disruptivo, Unsplash.com, CC0 License