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5 Tips For The Anxious Teen

If you’re like most parents, you expend fair amounts of emotional energy worrying about how to protect your child from the stresses of growing up in an uncertain world. This article is for you, as loving parents of stressed or anxious teens, and for your teen, who is truly doing the best they can. These brief tips will help you get to the core of anxious symptoms, providing you with direction for more peace, less worry.

As you may know, anxiety rates in teens has sharply increased, making it the most common mental health disorder in the U.S., affecting one-third of both adolescents and adults. Despite it’s ubiquity, anxiety is often taken less seriously than depression, possibly because we have come to believe that chronic stress and anxiety are part of the American adolescent experience. A New York Times recently published an article Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Anxiety?, addressing this spike in symptoms of anxiety in teens:

“Anxiety is easy to dismiss or overlook, partially because everyone has it to some degree,”… It has an evolutionary purpose, after all; it helps us detect and avoid potentially dangerous situations. Highly anxious people, though, have an overactive fight-or-flight response that perceives threats where there often are none.

Anxiety is often overlooked as a serious problem because teens these days really to have a lot to be stressed about. It may seem like “the way things are” for a teen to have difficulty sleeping, have digestive problems, be highly irritable, or think negatively about themselves. Such anxiety symptoms, while common, are not “just how things are for teens”–they are abnormal and treatable, and do not have to become a part of a teen’s life or identity.

Anxiety is worry run amok: it is worrying about something in the near or distant future, then making the mistake of believingthe worry. Anxiety involves “awfulizing” ourselves or the world. It includes thoughts such as:

  • “I’ll never get this right”
  • “I’m always such a screw-up”
  • “Nobody likes me”
  • “The world is so awful and will never get better.”
  • “If I don’t look like / perform like my expectations, it will be the end of the world.”

The truth is that rarely is something ALWAYS one way or the other. It may FEEL as though you 1) don’t have any friends, or 2) will never solve a problem, or 3) always screw things up. However, if I offered you a thousand dollars to identify one exception to those “awfulizing” thoughts, I’ll bet you could think of some times when 1) people were actually friendly to you, 2) the problem wasn’t as much of a problem, or 3) that you didn’t totally screw things up. The point is, anxiety is a thinking disorder as much as a feeling, or mood, disorder. Putting the thoughts under the microscope long enough to notice what is there, can do wonders for changing your mood.

A common approach to getting rid of Anxiety is to try to STOP the anxious thoughts.However, that can be like dumping gasoline on a bonfire:  trying to stop Anxiety adds a layer of “should” and “why can’t I stop” on top of the already-anxious thoughts. It adds self-judgment to worry.

Rather than trying to STOP anxiety, I offer 5 tips for teens (and adults) to reduce it (and eventually stop it), with awareness and self-compassion:

1. Recognize

Recognize that you are having an anxious experience. You are worrying. You are stressed. You are not your normal self. It is important to separate anxiety symptoms from YOU personally. YOU are not this anxiety. It may be visiting you for the moment, but it is not who you are. Recognize when Anxiety is here, and then move on to the next step.

2. Notice Physical Sensations

Recognize what the anxious symptoms feel like in your body. How do you know when Anxiety is visiting? How does it feel different than other times, like when you’re relaxed or having fun? What does Anxiety feel like in your body? Does it make you feel nauseated, have a pit in your stomach, make your heart race, feel dizzy, give you a headache? Take some time to notice each an every physical sensation that is there when Anxiety is visiting.

3. Thought Check

Now that you’ve noticed how Anxiety makes you feel physically, take some moments to notice what thoughts you are thinking when Anxiety is there. Feelings and thoughts are two sides of the same coin–whenever there is an emotional feeling, it is always accompanied by thoughts. Often we don’t recognize the thought, but we react to it; we act as if it were the absolute truth. For example, Joshua is sitting in class when all of the sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, he feels a wave of heat and nausea. He notices that his heart is racing and and his palms get sweaty. This is the first indication that Anxiety may be there. When he zooms in closer to look at what thoughts are accompanying these uncomfortable feelings, he realizes that he has been thinking: “I have to get a ‘B’ on this test, or I won’t get into the college I want to, and I will be a loser, and people will think I’m stupid, and I’ll have to live at home and I will be miserable.”

4. It’s Okay To Talk Back

Talk back to those Anxious thoughts. Hold them a little more loosely, not with absolute certainty. Is it ABSOLUTELY TRUE that what your thoughts are telling you will come to pass? What if the opposite were true? Who would you be–how would you be living your life, feeling and acting, if the opposite were true?

5. Recognize (Again) 

Now having considered an alternative way of thinking, go back to noticing your physical sensations and emotions (steps 1 and 2)–what has changed? Have some of the physical discomforts lessened? Has Anxiety become less dominant of your feelings and thoughts?

This series of 5 steps may seem simple, but they are really powerful, when practiced consistently, for reducing the effects of Anxiety. Remember, Anxiety is simply a feature of our fight-or-flight reactions, and we can train our brains to develop a different way of responding to worry. When you take time to put these 5 steps into practice, you are training your brain to engage the frontal cortex, or the part of your brain that is responsible for rational thought and acting rather than REacting. When the frontal cortex is engaged through this exercise (which requires our conscious effort), the fight-or-flight response diminishes, which then diminishes the effects of Anxiety.

One more tip:

If you want to consistently decrease Anxiety, in addition to practicing these 5 steps IN THE MOMENT of experiencing anxiety, you would benefit from engaging in a daily Mindfulness practice. Five or 10 minutes of Mindfulness Meditation practiced each morning or at night has the same brain training effects as these 5 steps. Additionally, a regular Mindfulness Meditation practice and can make it easier for you to work through these 5 steps when you’re in the thick of a visit from Anxiety. (Click here to read more about Mindfulness Meditation)

As with any mental health concern, I advise consulting your family physician to rule out any medical contributions. Additionally, a mental health professional can be a useful guide to helping the teen put into practice these 5 tips.