August 30, 2021

How to Recognize Anxiety in Teens: Understanding Teen Anxiety

Everyone feels anxious from time to time; a feeling of worry, uneasiness, and fear of what may happen in the near future. Depending on the situation or perceived threat, these feelings of anxiety could be mild or intense.

Anxiety in teens often develops out of the sight of friends and family members, until symptoms become too obvious to ignore. This guide to how anxiety symptoms are expressed in teenagers and the possible treatment options will help you support your teen’s mental health.

Intro to Anxiety in Teenagers

Natural anxiety is nonpersistent, lasting only for a few hours to a few days. A stage performance, job interview, class presentation, date, or even phone call can cause natural situational anxiety. This type of anxiety is a normal and protective reaction in all human beings. It makes people alert in situations of impending danger or change, and it may even enhance performance.

When anxiety symptoms in teens persist and begin to influence their quality of life, they may indicate an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are a treatable mental health condition. Genetics, personality, life events, and changes in brain chemistry can make a teenager more susceptible to developing an anxiety disorder.

In addition, young people also face new stressors in the modern world, and these sources of natural anxiety can sometimes spiral out of control:1

  • Higher expectations for achievement. Young people are growing up in a culture that pushes them to succeed, sometimes at all costs. Standardized test scores and rising standards for acceptance into the college of their choice can put students under high levels of pressure that never seem to let up.
  • Rising threat levels in the world. Teenagers today are exposed to news about violence, riots, school shootings, and health emergencies on a daily basis. Fear of facing direct violence, pandemics, or terror attacks can be due to a real threat or a perceived one, which fuels anxiety and fear of normal everyday activities and places.
  • Social media pressure. Social media is a cultural driver in today’s world, and teens feel great peer pressure to be connected and engaged in social media throughout the day. The view of life, beauty, and success that social media provides is not a realistic one, however, leading many teens to feel they come up short in comparison to others. Add to this the fact social media can be a source of bullying and social exclusion, and you have another potential source of anxiety in teens.
Sad teenage girl leaning against brick wall

What Does Anxiety Feel Like?

People with anxiety disorders feel overwhelming amounts of fear, worry, uneasiness, and nervousness, and these feelings are so persistent that they become distracted and tense all the time, unable to function normally. Anxiety in teenagers interferes with personal lives, academic and extracurricular activities, and relationships with families and friends.

Some teenagers may also turn to substance abuse (drugs and alcohol) when they have an anxiety disorder. National Institute of Mental Health statistics show that about 31.9% of adolescents had an anxiety disorder of some kind. At least 8.3% had a serious anxiety disorder that caused severe impairment. Girls had a higher likelihood of being affected than boys.2

Anxiety Can Be Different in Teenagers

Younger children typically experience anxiety about specific external things like bugs, animals, the dark, kidnappers, and imaginary monsters. Teenagers, in contrast, often develop anxiety about more diffuse and subjective topics. Teens are often worried about:

  • Their performance in school, at home, and in relationships
  • How they are perceived by other teenagers and adults
  • Their changing bodies and sexuality
Mother helps stressed teenage daughter with homework

Young people face many challenging situations and pressures that can give rise to a recognized anxiety disorder. Some of the most common anxiety problems faced by teenagers include:3

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

This is the most common type of anxiety disorder in teenagers and adolescents. It can occur as early as when the child is six with symptoms being noticeable at age eleven. The teenager with a generalized anxiety disorder is constantly worried and has an intense fear of a range of possible occurrences.

The young adult worries daily about performing poorly in their academics, their family separating, or even their friends leaving them. They may also worry excessively about things like weather reports, how they look, and how they are perceived. This anxiety disorder has no specific trigger. Often, the teenager with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) has low self-esteem and will benefit from professional treatment.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a common anxiety disorder that affects both children, teenagers, and adults. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 100 adults and 1 in 20 teenagers in the United States are dealing with OCD.

This is a disorder in which an individual obsesses over a particular unwanted thought, image, or impulse, which then causes extreme anxiety and stress. They feel compelled to deal with stress and anxiety by engaging in a particular habit or behavior. They may impulsively and repeatedly clean their room, wash their hands, count steps, or check if a door is locked. An excessive concern about safety or health is a common example of OCD.

Even when the teenager knows or suspects that they have an unhealthy obsessive-compulsive behavior, they feel unable to stop without treatment. Obsessive-compulsive behaviors are repetitive and time-consuming, interfering with the daily routines of life. Once OCD develops, professional treatment may be needed to overcome these behaviors.

Phobia Disorders

Many teenagers develop specific fears that are out of proportion to the threat these objects or situations present. Intense fears and irrational responses to non-threatening triggers like these are called phobias. Phobias often cause a physical fear response, headaches, and stomachaches.

Common phobias include fear of tight spaces, open spaces, spiders, heights, and any number of other objects or situations a teenager might encounter. Phobias can cause behaviors like school avoidance or school refusal, or even a complete refusal to leave the house, known as agoraphobia. Phobias usually respond well to therapy.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

This is an intense worry in children and adolescents of being away from their parents or caregivers. They become very afraid that their parents are abandoning them and may not return to pick them up.  

While this is more common in younger children, separation anxiety in teens may develop or persist from childhood. The teenagers may get very reluctant to leave home, skip school, and avoid other social meetings. They may deny that they get anxious about being separated from their parents, even if this is the root cause of their avoidant behaviors. Psychotherapy is recommended for cases of separation anxiety to foster independence and confidence.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social phobias or social anxiety in teens are specific to a certain environment or situation. Teenagers with social phobia feel overwhelmed and very nervous when in a social setting or even when answering the telephone. When this happens, they may withdraw and isolate themselves from other people because their feelings of fear become extremely uncomfortable.

Social anxiety affects people of all ages, but it can be very limiting to a teenager, keeping them from making friends, engaging in sports or clubs, and succeeding in school or work. This form of anxiety is highly treatable, and finding the right supportive therapy can make all the difference in how confidently a young person approaches life.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder may cause an individual to suffer from panic attacks. These occur very suddenly in adults and teenagers, who experience intense fear and adrenaline responses. They typically have a sense of impending danger and overwhelming anxiety, having difficulty breathing and speaking.  

Panic attacks give rise to physical complaints of chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, and numbness in the extremities. In some cases, this is accompanied by intense sweating, choking, and a feeling as if the individual is dying.

While panic attacks usually pass on their own, fear of having another attack can create a cycle of fear and discomfort. This is a very debilitating disorder that often requires a combination of therapy and medication to be resolved.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD can impact teenagers as well as adults. After witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event, a teen might have flashbacks, nightmares, hallucinations, or panic attacks from triggers they encounter in everyday life that bring back vivid memories of the event.

PTSD is a debilitating anxiety disorder that can put a teenager at risk. Witnessing any serious trauma can cause this disorder, including violent crimes, natural disasters, car accidents, or school violence. If a teenager experiences severe trauma, they might benefit from counseling or therapy to help them deal with the event before the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has a chance to develop.

Frustrated woman reading message in a smartphone

Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

Teenagers are rapidly changing individuals, and it can be difficult to recognize the signs of anxiety in teens among other normal and natural stress responses and emotional reactions. There are social, emotional, and physical symptoms of this disorder in teenagers. These signs of anxiety disorder may include:4

Emotional Symptoms of Anxiety in Teens

  • Feeling irritable, on edge, or keyed up most of the time
  • Feeling restless and having difficulty concentrating
  • Emotional outbursts that seem out of proportion to the circumstances
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Compulsive behaviors

Social Symptoms of Anxiety in Teens

  • Avoiding social activities and interactions with friends
  • Withdrawing or isolating from former peer groups
  • Spending increasing amounts of time alone
  • Declining academic performance

Physical Symptoms of Anxiety in Teens

  • Headaches or migraines
  • Nausea and stomach problems
  • Fatigue
  • Aches and pains
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Changes in sleeping habits

Symptoms of a Panic Attack or PTSD

  • Shaking, sweating, rapid heartbeat
  • Dizziness and difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain or a feeling of pressure
  • Tense muscles, clenched hands
  • Numbness or tingling in arms and legs
  • Feelings as if they will die or “go crazy”
  • Derealization—believing that this current experience is not real

What Causes Anxiety in Teens?

The exact causes of anxiety disorders are not known. However, a number of factors could contribute to a teenager’s development of anxiety disorder, including a history of unexpected or disproportionate reactions as a child, traumatic experiences, genetic predisposition, learned behaviors, or environmental influences. Disruption is the brain’s reaction to external triggers or a chemical imbalance between brain chemicals like norepinephrine and serotonin.

Left untreated, chronic anxiety can lead to other mental health issues, and anxiety disorders are often linked to:5

  • Depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts
  • Substance use disorders and self-medicating with recreational drugs
  • Quality of life impacts from social withdrawal or poor performance that extend long into adulthood

What Treatments Are Available for Anxiety in Teens?

Female professional psychologist trying to calm anxious youngster

With the help of mental health professionals and therapists, it is possible to treat and manage anxiety disorders in teenagers. The sooner the disorder is diagnosed, the earlier treatment can begin, so symptoms of chronic anxiety in teenagers should be discussed with a doctor or counselor as soon as possible. Sadly, despite the treatability of this disorder, up to 80% of children and teenagers with diagnosable anxiety disorder do not get any professional care.

There are many highly effective types of treatment for anxiety disorders, and the process of getting help is simple. After assessment and evaluation, a mental health professional will recommend a comprehensive plan, which may include both therapy and medication. The treatment plan may include:

Psychotherapy

This is also called “talk therapy,” and it uses several evidence-based methods to treat anxiety. Through these methods, teenagers learn to approach and deal with their feelings of fear in more effective ways. Some of psychotherapeutic methods include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
  • Individual, group, and family counseling
  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PET)
  • Focused relaxation and coping techniques

Medication

In some cases, psychotherapy is used alongside Selective Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) to treat people with an anxiety disorder. SSRIs are antidepressant medications prescribed for treating anxiety disorders in children and young adults. There are also several anti-anxiety medications available only by prescription that are used to treat panic attacks.

Enhancing Self-Care

Healthy habits, exercises, and engagements that enhance feelings of wellbeing are also a great help with the treatment of anxiety disorder. These habits and exercises may include healthy nutrition, good sleep patterns, meditation, yoga, and effective communication with friends and family.

Finding Help for Teens with Anxiety

Teenager visiting psychotherapist

For more than 40 years, Teensavers has been helping teenagers deal with the mental health challenges they face. We support the development of healthy resiliency through a broad range of treatment programs focused on the unique needs of young people in treatment.

Learning the life skills and healthy coping mechanisms they may need to rise above emotional, behavioral, or mental health issues can empower teens to deal with life stress in a productive way. The impacts of anxiety disorders can be overcome and reversed through our comprehensive and proven treatment programs.

Teensavers offers complete treatment and therapy programs for all the challenges a young person might face, including:

  • Mental health disorders
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Dual Diagnosis
  • Trauma
  • Eating Disorders
  • Substance Use Disorders

At Teensavers, we offer both outpatient programs and residential treatment for adolescents with all kinds of life obstacles. We provide resources, tools, and programs that help families and young people reconnect and heal from trauma and other causes of anxiety or depression.

Contact our team today to discuss symptoms, options, and treatment programs available for yourself, your loved one, or a young person who is in crisis. We are waiting to provide more guidance and a path to healing for young people and support healthier schools and communities nationwide.

Sources:

  1. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/emotional-problems/Pages/Anxiety-Disorders.aspx
  2. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder#part_155096
  3. https://www.aacap.org/aacap/Families_and_Youth/Resource_Centers/Anxiety_Disorder_Resource_Center/Your_Adolescent_Anxiety_and_Avoidant_Disorders.aspx
  4. https://www.psycom.net/hidden-signs-teen-anxiety/
  5. https://childmind.org/article/signs-of-anxiety-in-teenagers/

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