Recognizing Signs and Seeking Treatment
Anxiety is a universal human emotion that we all face at one point or another. For many teenagers and young adults, however, anxiety is a regular and debilitating occurrence. Without professional treatment, a teen or young adult with an anxiety disorder may experience intense and uncontrollable feelings of worry that disrupt daily life and damage one’s self-esteem, academic performance, and relationships.
Anxiety disorders occur frequently in all age groups, but teenagers and young adults are especially prone to the condition. The National Institute of Health notes that as many as 1 in 3 teenagers from ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder.
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Signs of Anxiety
Anxiety can lead to a host of mental and emotional symptoms. Some include:
- Persistent feelings of worry, especially worry which is severe, uncontrollable, or which intrudes on one’s ability to concentrate on other tasks
- Frequent irritability or agitation, particularly when an individual sees their frustration as irrational or disproportionate with the incident which caused it
- A sense of restlessness, where one feels like they can never relax
- A feeling that one is in danger or will experience danger or doom in the future
- Difficulty concentrating on tasks to an abnormal degree
- The presence of new and irrational fears, which may constitute phobias
Anxiety is more than just a feeling or an emotional experience. In addition to the mental toll that an anxiety disorder can take on an individual, it can also have pronounced physical and behavioral effects. These may be subtle and not interfere with one’s regular functioning, or may be impossible to ignore and completely debilitating in the case of more severe anxiety and panic disorders.
Some of the physical symptoms of anxiety include:
- An elevated or pounding heartrate
- Stomach issues
- Shortness of breath
- Tension in one’s muscles
- Rapid breathing in the case of anxiety or panic attacks
- Sleep issues
Behavioral manifestations of anxiety vary, but can include:
- Avoidant behavior, such as a withdrawal from socialization, school, work, or previously enjoyed activities
- Irritability in the form of a short temper
- Panic attacks in which an individual feels intense fear, experiences physical manifestations of that fear such as shaking, shortness of breath or an elevated heartrate, and may believe they are suffering from a medical episode, such as a heart attack
- Changes in appetite
- Excessive sleep, or a notable lack of sleep due to difficulty falling or staying asleep
Anxiety is a complex class of mental health challenges, and may present differently in everyone. It is worth noting that many symptoms of anxiety are shared with other physical and mental health conditions, so parents should be sure to monitor and communicate with their teenager if they suspect anxiety to be present.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
While the term “anxiety” usually refers to generalized anxiety disorder, it can also be used as an umbrella term for a number of separate but related mental health conditions. These include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder, the most common form of anxiety disorder, is characterized by consistent, difficult-to-control feelings of worry which occur more days than not for 6 months or longer. It is more common in women than men, but can be experienced by anyone.
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by “recurrent, unwanted thoughts and repetitive behaviors.” The International OCD Foundation describes obsessions as “unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings,” leading to compulsions – “behaviors an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and/or decrease his or her distress.”
- Panic disorder is characterized by bouts of intense fear and panic which are accompanied by strong physical reaction.
- Social anxiety disorder or social phobia is characterized by fear, worry, self-consciousness, and withdrawal from certain social situations and interactions.
Causes of Anxiety Disorders
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America notes that anxiety disorders can often have biological causes. For instance, anxiety disorders can run in families. They may also result from physical conditions, like hyperthyroidism or heart issues.
Traumatic or difficult life events and other underlying mental health conditions can also contribute to the formation of anxiety. People with certain personality types may be at greater risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Chronic stress and drug and alcohol abuse are other risk factors.[v]
Discussing Anxiety Treatment With Your Teen or Young Adult
If you are noticing worsening anxiety in your teenager, it may be time to discuss professional treatment. Because teens may be hesitant about receiving treatment, parents can focus on communicating what anxiety is, how to recognize it, and what treatment modalities exist to help them cope with it. Giving your teen or young adult an idea of how treatment works, and communicating your willingness to take their concerns seriously, can break through common barriers and misconceptions that keep teens from asking for help. With this awareness, you and your teen can get into a deeper discussion of what the causes of their anxiety are and how to address them with various professional treatment options.
Anxiety Treatment in Teens
Treatment for anxiety disorders in teenagers can take different forms depending on the type of disorder one has, along with its severity and causes. Broadly, interventions can take the form of therapy, medication, or lifestyle modifications. Many people may choose to opt for therapy as a go-to treatment, and only consider medication when more help is necessary. Others may choose to begin on medication immediately in more serious cases.
Therapies for Anxiety
There are a variety of therapeutic solutions which target anxiety. Therapy can take the form of one-on-one sessions between the individual and a therapist, or of group sessions with peers or family present. Regardless of the methodology used, the goal of therapy is to address anxiety and other mental health challenges by exploring the situations and thoughts that precede them and learning new coping strategies and techniques for responding in a healthy way. Some of the most common therapeutic forms used to address anxiety include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy focuses on identifying the mental and emotional processes behind anxiety and similar mental health conditions. A client learns the situations that provoke their anxious thoughts or feelings, as well as the kinds of anxious feelings and thoughts that occur frequently. They then begin to replace these self-limiting and anxious thoughts with new, positive beliefs that enable positive action. CBT for anxiety may also include exposure therapy. Anxiety concerning certain situations or feelings can lead to behavior designed to avoid them. However, rather than solving the problem, this avoidance often leads to even more anxiety. In exposure therapy, the individual receives guidance in gradually introducing themselves to situations which provoke anxiety in order to defuse them of their power and confront the source of fear directly. With time and appropriate work, teens and young adults can gradually decrease the anxiety they feel given a certain situation and develop confidence and self-esteem as they overcome it.
- Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy is a variation of Cognitive Therapy which can be highly effective in addressing anxiety. Anxiety is often compared to a “runaway train” where one thought or trigger can lead one down a long chain of what-if scenarios. The goal of mindfulness is to develop an awareness of one’s bodily and emotional responses to experiences. By doing so, teens and young adults who suffer from anxiety can change their relationship to anxious thoughts, avoid falling into the traps of anxious thinking, and accept challenging feelings and emotions without letting them take hold of one’s body and mind.
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy teaches individuals how to regulate their emotions with distress tolerance skills. It also encourages the development of healthy coping strategies to deal with anxious thoughts and feelings.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is about accepting and recognizing thoughts and feelings as they are using mindfulness. The goal is less about avoiding or “defeating” anxious thoughts and feelings, and more about focusing on mindful behavior and acting in accordance with one’s values. A focus on mindfulness and action naturally reduces anxiety, and makes one better equipped to deal with anxiety when it does arise.
“Triggers” are certain thoughts, events, or situations that bring up feelings of anxiety. Triggers are different for everyone, so learning to recognize one’s triggers is an important step in understanding the sources of anxiety and how to address them. This is often an important part of therapy for anxiety, with different approaches suggesting different ways of recognizing and responding to triggers.
Medication for Anxiety
Numerous forms of medication exist for addressing anxiety. The most common class of these are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. These include drugs like Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft. Benzodiazepines, like Xanax or Valium, can also address anxiety, but are generally taken on a more as-needed basis rather than daily like SSRIs due to their high potential for abuse. All medications carry potential side effects, and as such should only be prescribed after consultation with a medical professional.
Lifestyle Modifications to Address Anxiety
Lifestyle modifications are likely not enough on their own to treat an anxiety disorder, but they can certainly help. Exercise, healthy nutrition, the maintenance of a regular sleep schedule, and the development of positive coping strategies like mindfulness, journaling, or meditation can all assist a teen or young adult in their responses to anxiety and improve their overall physical and mental well-being.
Teen Residential Treatment for Anxiety
Residential treatment for anxiety in teens and young adults can provide a safe and supportive therapeutic environment away from home. When conducted properly, a residential program offers an intensive level of individualized care and peer support which is not achievable at home. It also provides an environment where teens and young adults have the time and space to focus solely on tackling their mental health challenges. Residential treatment can be a great solution if your teen or young adult’s home environment is stressful or otherwise limiting to their growth, or if other treatment options have not been effective.
Anxiety Treatment at Paradigm
Paradigm Treatment Center offers individualized treatment for teens and young adults facing anxiety and other co-occurring mental health disorders in our intensive treatment plans. Unique in offering daily individual therapy, our programs also incorporate group and family therapies, relevant medications, a tight-knit and encouraging social environment, and a host of experiential therapies to address anxiety.
A significant barrier to anxiety treatment can be a lack of knowledge of the condition, or a misunderstanding of how it may be treated. To address common questions and sources of worry or hesitation, we offer teens, young adults and their families Psycho-Educational Services which arm them with the facts about given conditions and their treatment options. When clients and their families better understand the mental health or substance abuse challenges they experience, they feel less alone and can more easily engage in the treatment process and work towards solutions.
With a small staff-to-client ratio, evidence-based care practices, and a strong focus on treatment tailored to the needs of the individual, the experienced and caring team at Paradigm will help your teen address their anxiety and co-occurring mental health disorders to achieve personal growth and success in all areas of life.