Anxiety in Teens: What It Is and How to Help

Let’s be honest about it — being a teenager is one of the most challenging stages of life. Not only are teens dealing with transitioning to adulthood, but they’re doing this while a surge of complicated emotions and hormones rage through their bodies.

As a result, some anxiety is expected and normal. However, the reality is that by the time adolescence is reached, about 32 percent of teens (aged 13-18) have a diagnosable anxiety disorder, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. The teenage years are difficult, but they’re even worse when also struggling with anxiety. Luckily, there are ways this can be helped.

What is anxiety in teens?

Anxiety issues in teens can be difficult to notice due to blaming some of the symptoms on mere hormone changes. For example, a teenager can avoid their normal activities simply due to moodiness but avoiding their normal activities can also be a sign of an anxiety disorder.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, symptoms of an anxiety disorder usually include excessive fear or worry, feelings of restlessness, a tendency to be hesitant and on edge, and extreme stress. Other signs can be changes in physical symptoms (aches, pains, stomach aches, etc.) and panic attacks.

How can we help?

Seeing a therapist can often be beneficial for teens suffering from anxiety. Programs like Polaris Residential Programs offer a wide range of evidence-based therapies from licensed therapists such as family therapy, group therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, and much more at their residential treatment center.

In some cases, antidepressants may be a necessary treatment option to get the teen back on track with their mental health. Outside of therapy, there are other things to consider helping the teen struggling with anxiety in our life. Here are three things to consider:

1) Is tinnitus a possibility?

Tinnitus is when we hear a sound that has no external source. For example, hearing a buzzing or ringing sound when there is no source for that noise. There are many tinnitus causes ranging from a temporary side effect of a new medication or ear wax build-up to severe ear damage, causing hearing loss.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, roughly three out of every 1,000 children born in the US are born with a “detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears” and tinnitus has been correlated to hearing loss. Therefore, it is best to get a teen with anxiety seen by an audiologist to see if tinnitus is an underlying cause.

Considering that, according to The International Tinnitus Journal, a review of 15 different studies showed “mounting evidence” for a connection between tinnitus and anxiety and depression, it is definitely something to consider in an anxious teen (at least to rule it out).

2) Don’t dismiss or ignore their fears

With teenagers, it can be easy to dismiss their struggles because we’re dealing with “adult problems” and feel as if “teen problems” don’t seem like a big deal comparatively. While the reality of this may be true, it’s not necessarily any “easier” because it’s not that simple.

According to Dr. Marwa Azab, a neuroscientist who wrote an article for Psychology Today late last year, it’s not always a teenager’s fault that they’re emotional or a bit dramatic. She explains that the reason teens have a tendency towards the emotional is due to the fact that during puberty their brains are being “rewired.”

Dr. Azab explains that, during puberty, the amygdala (the emotional part of our brain) becomes hyperactive, but the brain isn’t done developing so teens are still going to have difficulty being rational since their prefrontal cortex (the logical part of the brain) is still under-developed (this will start to even out in their 20’s – hang in there). With an anxious teen, it’s important to acknowledge that their fears are heard and real (at least to them) instead of brushing them off as “teen drama.”

3) Don’t make avoiding a situation due to anxiety a big deal

Instead of further stressing the anxious teen in our life out about having avoided a problem or situation, encourage them to make small goals for themselves. For example, if they’re afraid of public speaking — don’t encourage them to take a speech class, but instead, encourage them to face their fears in smaller ways until they can do such things. An example of this would be smaller things like being a greeter at church or starting a conversation with a new kid at school.

Bonus tip: often, untreated mental health issues can put teens at a higher risk for experimenting with alcohol, other substance abuse, and, in some cases, some even struggle with anorexia, bulimia, or bipolar disorder. To prevent this, at the first signs of anxiety in adolescents, encourage them to seek counseling and to find relaxation techniques that work for them.