Teen Anxiety Disorders and the Role of Avoidance

To some degree, everyone experiences anxiety. In fact, it’s practically the norm. It’s practically expected that a working adult be stressed, overworked, worried, or tense. There’s work, children, family, friends, finances, meals, and more to tend to each day. For many, the mind keeps going. It keeps thinking, worrying, analyzing, and planning. Eventually, this mental overworking, over-thinking, overanalyzing can lead to mental illness. It can lead to anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

Having worry or anxiety before a major event, such as prior to an exam, for example, is considered normal. However, experiencing anxiety every morning upon waking might be symptomatic of a disorder. Many teens might experience free-floating anxiety, which is anxiety that is unrelated to a realistic, known source. You might feel anxious or nervous before performing in the school play, but feeling anxious for no defined reason might point to a mental health condition. An individual who carries an underlying feeling of anxiety and tension throughout the day may very well have a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

What is GAD?

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a diagnosis given to adolescents who experience excessive and irrational worry for at least six months. If there is excessive worry about school, relationships, career, college, and family life, a teen might be diagnosed with GAD. What’s interesting about this disorder is that those who suffer from it will have difficulty putting their finger on the source of anxiety, fear, or worry. Yet, their experience of anxiety is persistent and chronic. This seems to fit well with the kind of anxiety that some might experience as the result of chronic stress.

What Is Avoidance?

However, avoidance is a symptom of some teen anxiety disorders that is different from the kind of anxiety described above. It is unconscious turning away of what a teen might be afraid of. Avoidance can play a role in anxiety disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Phobias, and Panic Disorder.

At first, anxiety might seem to hum like background noise in a teenager’s life. It is consistently present without at first getting the way of that teen’s functioning. However, untreated, anxiety can become chronic, eventually interfering with their ability to attend school and performing well on exams and projects. Symptoms in these cases include:

• Fear
• Worry
• Inner restlessness
• Being excessively vigilant
• Continual nervousness
• Extreme stress

In social situations, some teens might feel withdrawn, dependent, and overly uneasy. It is common for adolescents to focus on their looks, feelings, and social acceptance, which can feed into the presence of anxiety, especially in social settings. Those that feel excessive anxiety might appear to be extremely shy and avoid social settings, usual extracurricular activities, or engage in new experiences. If teen anxiety continues to go untreated, it can develop into having symptoms of panic attacks and phobias.

The Role of Avoidance

Avoidance plays a clear role in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Phobias, and Panic Disorder. For instance, those who have PTSD might attempt to stay away from certain places to avoid reliving the traumatic experience or forgetting the experience entirely. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness experienced by someone who has experienced a traumatic event, and who is experiencing symptoms of anxiety as a result. These symptoms may include flashbacks, bad dreams, and frightening thoughts.

Furthermore, a teen with a phobia might attempt to avoid the triggers that cause intense fear, such as certain places or things. A teen who experiences Panic Disorders might try to avoid those situations that might bring on a panic attack. Panic Disorder is a mental health condition in which an adolescent experiences sudden and repeated attacks of fear, which are often accompanied by a feeling of being out of control. What often only adds to having Panic Disorder is an intense worry about when the next attack might take place.

Finally, avoidance can also show up in depression, which is another common psychological disorder. Teen anxiety and depression are often related and co-exist. Of course, if you or an adolescent you know is experiencing mental health concerns, the best next step is to undergo an assessment in order to be adequately diagnosed and treated.

Pruitt, D. (2000). Your adolescent: Emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development from early adolescence through the teen years. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

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