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Back to School Anxiety in Teens

An anxiety disorder is a mental health problem that can affect people of all ages, including adolescents.  In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health disorder in adolescents, affecting as many as ten percent of young people.

Anxiety is the feeling of worry, apprehension or dread that something bad is going to happen or that you can’t cope with a situation. It’s also the physical reactions that go with the feeling, like ‘butterflies in the stomach’, tension, shakiness, nausea and sweatiness. And it’s behavior like avoiding what’s causing the anxiety or wanting a lot of reassurance.

Anxiety can happen in response to a specific situation or event, but it continues after the situation has passed. It can happen without a specific situation or event, too.

Anxiety is a common and natural part of life.  All adolescents experience some anxiety; this is normal and expected.

Such anxiety becomes a problem when it interrupts an adolescent’s normal activities, like attending school and making friends or sleeping.  Persistent and intense anxiety that disrupts daily routine is a mental health problem that requires intervention.

Symptoms of Anxiety in Adolescents

Symptoms of anxiety vary widely, from withdrawal and avoidance to irritability and lashing out.  Anxiety is often overlooked because teenagers are good at hiding their thoughts and feelings.  But these are some of the behaviors that might be a sign an adolescent is anxious.

  • Recurring fears and worries about routine parts of everyday life
  • Anxious feelings that go on for weeks, months or even longer
  • Anxious feelings that interfere with their schoolwork, socializing and everyday activities
  • Irritability
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Extreme self-consciousness or sensitivity to criticism
  • Withdrawal from friends or social activity
  • Avoidance of difficult or new situations
  • Chronic complaints about stomach aches or headaches
  • Drop in grades or school refusal
  • Repeated reassurance-seeking
  • Sleep problems
  • Substance use

How Adolescents Can Cope with Anxiety

  • Start with a positive mindset.
    Brain science has shown that you can teach your brain new ways to respond. This means that a person can get better at just about everything — with effort and practice. That includes coping with anxiety.
  • Notice what anxiety feels like for you. Get to know the body feelings that are part of anxiety. Describe them to yourself. When you’re anxious, do you feel ‘butterflies’? Sweaty palms? Shaky hands? A faster heartbeat? Know that these feelings are part of the body’s normal response to a challenge. They’re not harmful. They fade on their own. Next time they happen, try to notice the feelings without getting upset that they’re there. Accept them. Let them be there. You don’t have to push them away. But you don’t have to give them all of your attention either. See if you can let them be in the background.
  • Take a few slow breaths. You could breathe in for a count of 4, then breathe out for a count of 6. You could use your fingers to count four or five breaths. Taking a few slow breaths doesn’t make anxiety go away. But it can reduce it. It can help you pay less attention to anxious thoughts and feelings. It can help you ‘reset’ and be ready to move forward.
  • Talk yourself through it. When you’re anxious, it’s common to tell yourself things like, “I can’t do this.” Or “What if I mess this up?” Instead, plan to tell yourself something that could help you face the moment with a bit of courage: “I can do this.” Or, “It’s OK to feel anxious. I can do this anyway.”
  • Face the situation — don’t wait for anxiety to go away.

You might think that you’ll put off speaking in class until you no longer feel anxious about it. But it doesn’t work that way. It’s facing the anxiety that helps you manage it. This is called exposure.

What parents can do help their adolescent manage anxious feelings

Learning to manage anxiety is an important life skill, which you can help your adolescent learn. Here are some ideas.

  • Encourage your adolescent to talk about anxieties. Just talking about the things that make them anxious can reduce the amount of anxiety your adolescent feels. Talking and listeningalso helps you understand what’s going on for your adolescent. And when you understand, you’re better able to help your adolescent manage anxieties or find solutions to problems.
  • Acknowledge your adolescent’s feelings. Your adolescent’s anxiety is real, even if the thing they feel anxious about is unlikely to happen. This means it’s important to acknowledge your adolescent’s anxiety and tell them you’re confident they can handle it. This is better than telling them not to worry. For example, if your adolescent is anxious about whether they’ll pass an exam, let them know you understand how they feel but you’re sure they’ll do their best. When you acknowledge your adolescent’s feelings with warmth and compassion, it helps your adolescent to use self-compassion in challenging situations too.
  • Encourage brave behavior. This involves gently encouraging your adolescent to set small goals for things they feel anxious about. Just avoid pushing your adolescent to face situations they don’t feel ready to face. For example, your adolescent might be anxious about performing in front of others. As a first step, you could suggest your adolescent practice their lines in front of the family.

You can help your adolescent behave bravely by encouraging them to use:

  • positive self-talk – for example, ‘I can handle this. I’ve been in situations like this before’
  • self-compassion – for example, ‘It’s OK if I do this differently from other people. This way works for me’
  • assertiveness – for example, ‘I need some help with this project’.
  • It’s important to praise your adolescent for doing something they feel anxious about, no matter how small it is.
  • Help your adolescent feel safe and secure.
    Have a family routine that includes time for family meals, spend time with people your adolescent likes, trusts and feels comfortable around, and making time for things your adolescent finds relaxing such as listening to music, reading books, or going for walks.
  • Encourage healthy choices to help your adolescent handle anxiety such as: getting plenty of sleep, physical activity, avoiding caffeine, alcohol and drugs.

When to be concerned about anxiety

If you’re concerned about your adolescent’s anxiety, it’s a good idea to seek professional help.

You might consider seeing an adolescent therapist or another health professional if your adolescent exhibits anxiety symptoms that lasts for more than a couple of weeks.

When anxiety is severe and long lasting, it might be an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders usually respond very well to professional treatment. And the earlier anxiety disorders are treated, the less likely they are to affect young people’s mental health and development in the long term.

If you have worked with your teen to help them manage their anxiety, but they still seem to be struggling, they may be experiencing the early signs of a mental health condition.  Contact CenterPointe Hospital for a confidential assessment at no cost.