Anxiety is a basic function of survival–humans and other animals depend on this natural warning system to alert them to danger so they can protect themselves from potential harm. Usually, this alarm system becomes activated in legitimately stressful situations. For people living in current-day Westchester County that might include making a public presentation, going on a first date, being called on in class by an intimidating teacher, receiving a stern warning from a boss, or enduring a parent saying something “totally embarrassing” in front of “all of my friends!” For a mouse, the sight of a snake approaching for a tasty snack would constitute a stressful situation, and, in fact, snakes and other predators can be pretty alarming to humans as well. But most often what we experience as a stressor is not what happens to us in the woods, but what occurs in the office, the classroom, and for teens, at the lunch table or at a party.
The parts of the brain that manage our anxiety responses are the amygdala, often thought of as the emotional center in the brain; two parts of the frontal lobe, cognitive centers that help us decide if the threat is real and manageable; and finally, the hippocampus, our memory center for threatening events and trauma. Whenever we experience a stressful situation, these three areas have little conversations with each other and collaborate to create our response, releasing neurotransmitters to effect a behavioral reaction. For many people– an estimated 40 million or more in the U.S.–the anxiety centers are overactive. Their systems operate on high alert most of the time. As you can imagine, this is not a comfortable way to live, and therefore attention to anxiety disorders is a major part of mental health care in the U.S.
Several kinds of disorders fall within the category of anxiety disorders: generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, social phobia, panic disorders/agoraphobia, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Often teenagers’ symptoms do not rise to the level of these disorders, but many struggle to deal with unease, nervousness, worry, dread, and even fear. As their brains develop, and as they grow from children into young adults, their daily lives can be fraught with very palpable anxiety.
In my seventeen years as a psychotherapist here in Bronxville, during which a good portion of my practice focused on teens, I’ve noticed some trends in terms of what teens are most worried about. Of course, in treating school-age teens spanning ages 13-18, I see a lot of growth and development, and therefore shifts in what my clients worry about, and what they prioritize. Their most common concerns are:
How teens handle these stressors while going through puberty, with its hormonal upheavals and continued brain development, are influenced by heredity, learned coping mechanisms, natural and learned resilience, peer influences, substance use, exercise, and the ability to care for one-self.
Of course, what will relieve the anxiety is unique for each person, and special goals must be tailored to the person who is struggling. A good starting place might involve talking with others: sharing one’s stress with loved ones, friends, school counselors, grandparents–any trusted person. Freud coined the term “the talking cure,” and when dealing with anxiety, having conversations, working through problems and finding solutions, can be enormously cathartic. Once an anxious teen gains some perspective, he/she can begin to learn to use “self-talk,” a skill that involves talking oneself down–chipping away at the anxiety to get to a calmer place. When a teen is dealing with deeply distressing moments, feeling even a little bit calmer can bring substantial relief.
Since anxiety has such a strong impact on our bodies, and our minds work much better when our bodies are calm, it’s always a good idea to try to counter the physiological reactions associated with stress. Taking slow, deep breathes, lying down, and even doing some calming yoga poses or stretches until breathing and heart rate return to normal can be soothing. Some people like to listen to music, take long baths, or practice meditation or mindfulness exercises. Physical exercise also contributes to psychological well-being by helping us expend excess energy. Perhaps most important, sleep deprivation or unhealthy eating run counter to psychological wellness. When we sleep well and eat well, we prepare ourselves to handle stress more effectively.
If you’re a parent or other trusted adult who has made these suggestions and your teen has seemed to reject them all, take heart—they might be secretly listening! However, sometimes teens can feel so overwhelmed with anxiety they don’t believe that anything could possibly help. In such high-stress moments, it can be difficult to put strategies to use. But in my experience, those who try—taking small steps and being persistent—often begin to see positive results at managing stressful moments. Each success builds a teen’s confidence, and one achievement adds to another.
Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional. Even a short stint in psychotherapy can help an anxious person, especially during the teen years when things change so rapidly and new demands arise regularly.