Knowing The Difference Between Distress and an Anxiety Disorder in Teens

It’s true that adolescence can be stressful – not just for teens but for parents as well! If your child is showing signs of anxiety, you might want to take a look at some of the differences between distress and a disorder.

If your teen has an anxiety disorder, it’s necessary to get the right mental health treatment, and not only address his or her symptoms but also explore the underlying causes of that anxiety for full recovery. However, if your teen is experiencing distress, having him or her go on medication and seek therapy may not be the best solution. Although these forms of treatment are essential for those with anxiety disorders, they also come with a stigma. Many teens don’t want to admit that there is “something wrong with them”, especially during a life stage in which peer acceptance is critical.

As parents, it’s important to take all of this into consideration when determining the best way to provide support for your child. The following are ways to distinguish between distress and an anxiety disorder:


  • Usually associated with an event or series of events
  • Functional impairment is usually mild
  • Will usually lift with change in environment or removal of stressor
  • Professional intervention not usually necessary
  • Can lead to a positive factor in life
  • Teen learns new ways to deal with adversity and stress management
  • Social supports such as usual friendship and  family networks help
  • Counseling and other psychological interventions can help
  • Medications should not usually be used

Teen Anxiety Disorder

  • May be associated with a precipitating event
  • May onset spontaneously, some anxiety symptoms may appear before the onset of disorder
  • Functional impairment may range from mild to severe
  • Long lasting or may be chronic, environment may modify but not lift anxiety symptoms
  • Professional intervention is usually necessary
  • May increase adversity due to resulting negative life events (for example, anxiety can lead to school refusal and avoidance of normal developmental steps like independent activities with peers
  • May lead to  long term negative outcomes (social  isolation, low self esteem, lack of independence, depression, substance abuse, etc.)
  • Social supports and specific psychological interventions (counseling, psychotherapy) are often helpful
  • Medications may be needed but must be used properly

It’s interesting to know that the physiological experience of stress and anxiety are actually quite similar. The heart might start to beat faster, breathing might increase, and muscles might tense up. However, with stress you tend to be clear about the sources of the tension. For instance, you’re clear that you’re stressed about the chemistry exam, the date next weekend, and the pressure by your parents to get into a good college. With anxiety, there is often less of a direct source. You become less aware of what you’re anxious about and you’re even anxious about being anxious.

Anxiety is an excessive or unrealistic amount of worry, anxiety, and fear. Anxiety that is excessive and unrealistic is different than the level of stress that a teen might have prior to an exam, for example, which would be considered normal. But, experiencing anxiety every morning upon waking might be symptomatic of a disorder. In fact, experiencing anxiety that has no direct source is sometimes called free-floating anxiety. An individual who carries an underlying feeling of anxiety and tension throughout the day may very well have a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Although the physiological experience between anxiety and stress might be similar, the above chart might be useful to parents. Depending on the level of functioning of a teen as well as how significant he or she feels weighed down by his or her anxiety, you might have a clearer picture on how to best seek help.

However, it’s always best to contact a mental health professional. He or she can further assess whether mental health treatment is necessary.