So it has come to your attention that your teen has anxiety. Maybe they figured it out on their own through talking to a counselor, googling it, or talking to a friend. Maybe you recognized the signs yourself. Or perhaps you aren’t sure at this time if they are anxious, and are trying to figure that out. If you fall into the latter case, go read my post on 25 signs of teenage anxiety and then come back here.
We talk about anxiety all the time. But do you know what it really means?
Anxiety is the result of a physical response in the body to perceived danger. As your mind becomes aware of a possible threat in your environment, your autonomic nervous system (which is not within your direct control), activates the sympathetic nervous system response also known as fight or flight.
The sympathetic nervous system’s job is to prepare the body to respond to the threat. In order to do so, it releases epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones signal the body to increase your heart rate, increase blood flow to the brain and muscles, increase glucose for energy, and shut down unnecessary functions such as digesting food, among other responses.
Some symptoms of anxiety include:
Increased heart rate
Butterflies in the stomach
Increased or loose bowel movements
Difficulty thinking/talking clearly
Chills or hot flashes
Numbness or tingling in limbs
It is real. It is not shyness, cautiousness, or manipulation.
But I experience that sometimes too!
Anxiety is a normal response that we all experience from time to time. It has a purpose and can even be helpful in small amounts. Anxiety can motivate us to do something or change a situation. For instance, if you begin to have anxiety about a job interview the anxiety motivates you to prepare for the interview more to increase your chances of it going well. But that is only if the anxiety remains in check and doesn’t get too high.
When we are talking about someone having anxiety or suffering from anxiety, it is generally agreed that this person experiences it to a higher degree than others typically do, more frequently, and/or in situations that don’t tend to make others anxious. Their anxiety gets to a level in which it is no longer a helpful response but interferes with their life.
From a clinical perspective, a person must meet the DSM 5 criteria to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. This is something that needs to be determined by a mental health professional.
Even if a person does not meet criteria though, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t suffering.
When a teen’s anxiety goes haywire
As I already stated, this sympathetic nervous system response is designed to prepare our body to respond to a threat or dangerous situation. You have likely heard others describe this as having to run from a bear or tiger.
Thankfully we don’t have these threats to our physical safety very often. In modern days, however, many other things are perceived as a threat to our ability to survive. Not being successful in school decreases our chances of getting into college and getting a good job. Being rejected by others is also a threat to survival as social connection increases our chances of protection.
Unfortunately, the fight or flight response doesn’t help us overcome these “threats” and in fact, can make it harder to be successful in these situations. For instance, imagine trying to create thoughtful answers for that job interview while experiencing the burst of energy needed to help you try to out run a bear.
As we perceive that we have failed in a situation in some manner, it tends to increase our anxiety in the situation, causing a cycle of escalation. At some point it is just determined that it is best to avoid those situations to prevent risking failure.
When is your teen’s anxiety a problem?
Teen anxiety can range from minor discomfort to panic attacks or even being completely incapacitating.
We each have our own individual capacity to handle and manage feelings. Therefore when it becomes a “problem” is also based on the individual. The general rule of thumb I use is that it is a problem if it causes negative consequences. This may include causing a person to avoid pro-social situations (not going to the school dance), preventing them from engaging in normal positive behaviors (being too afraid to drive or to make a phone call to order pizza), or interfering with their performance (not doing well on a test due to the anxiety). Of course this is not a comprehensive list.
Ultimately it is a problem if you or your child feels that it is a problem.
What to do
If your teen’s anxiety seems to be a problem, find them help. Anxiety doesn’t typically get better on it’s own.