Anxiety can be a challenge for anyone; however, adolescents have the additional stress of the constant changes that occur during this time period which heighten the experience of anxiety for a teenager.
This anxiety can be overwhelming and there are ways to help your teen to make their anxiety smaller and more manageable. When teens feel stunned by fear, they feel that the anxiety is mysterious and unpredictable. Understanding the impact of the anxiety as well as the patterns can help you to provide support to your teen.
A Few Things to Keep in Mind
Anxiety has nothing to do with strength, character, or courage.
Teens with anxiety are some of the strongest, likable, brave people you know. Therefore, anxiety and courage exist together. To have courage doesn’t mean that you never experience fear. You need fear to be brave. Being courageous means that you are pushing up against what makes you scared. The level of fear differs for everyone. Courage allows a teen to feel the fear and push through it.
Sometimes anxiety comes for no reason at all.
Anxiety happens because your brain thinks there might be danger, even when there is no danger at all. While brains are smart, they can read things a little bit wrong sometimes. The brain is incredible and at times it can be overprotective. It wants to keep you safe. Brains are strong, healthy, and doing what they are meant to do.
Anxiety is very common. Everyone experiences anxiety on some level.
Approximately 1 in 5 teens have anxiety. Anxiety occurs on a spectrum – some teens have a lot and some people experience less. In everyday life, stressful situations exist that bring on anxiety including taking tests, interviewing, performing, and more. Sometimes it can happen for no reason at all.
Anxiety is a feeling, not a personality.
Anxiety doesn’t define your teen. It is a feeling that will come and go just like your heartbeats.
Practical, powerful ways to help your teens manage anxiety.
Understand why if feels the way it does.
The greatest tool to managing anxiety is to understand why it feels the way it does. Imagine being in a dark room filled with many things. You walk around in the dark and most likely bump into some of the things in the room. You might get bruises or yell out. Turn on the light in the same room and you will be able to navigate your way around the things in that room.
Anxiety happens because a part of your brain (the amygdala) thinks there might be something it needs to protect you from. When this happens, it surges your body with a mix of neurochemicals which are designed to make you stronger, faster, more alert, and more powerful so you can fight for your life or run for it. This is the fight or flight response. This is normal and healthy and everyone experiences this.
The amygdala reacts with impulse. It is a do-er, not a thinker or all action. It wants to keep you safe, because feeling safe is a comforting feeling and it’s job since the beginning of humans. The amygdala cannot always tell the difference between danger and safety. When there is no danger – nothing to flee or fight – the neurochemical fuel that surges builds up and this is why anxiety feels the way it does.
Coping with Anxiety
Managing anxiety occurs when your teen strengthens the structure and function of their brain in ways that protect it against anxiety. The brain is like any other muscle in their body – it gets stronger with practice. Here are a few proven and thoroughly researched strategies to be powerful in helping to reduce anxiety.
Mindfulness changes the brain the way exercise changes our body. This strategy strengthens the connections between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain that can calm big emotions like anxiety). The stronger the connections, the more the pre-frontal cortex is able to weigh in during anxiety and calm things down. Mindfulness teaches the brain to stay in the present moment. Anxiety is driven by a brain that focuses on the future. Thoughts start out as ‘what ifs’ and turn into persuasive little worries that won’t let go. Mindfulness helps your teen to control their brain so they can stop worrying about things it doesn’t need to. Mindfulness encourages your teen to be in the present and watch thoughts and feelings without hanging on to them for too long. Hanging on too long gives the brain too much fuel and become bigger.
The process of mindfulness includes your teen getting into a comfortable position and closing their eyes. Then your teen will notice their breathing. The focus is on how does the air feel as you breathe in and out recognizing the movement of their belly. Your teen will be instructed to notice their heart beating. Then your teen will recognize what they hear. There are some apps that can guide your teen through the process.
Research has shown the effect of exercise on mental health with plenty of support of the positive effects of exercise on anxiety. Some brain cells are born with the personality of puppies – excitable and quick to fire up. These cells help your teen to think quickly, act quickly, and remember. When too many of these excitable cells get too active, anxiety can happen. To stop these cells from getting over-excited and causing trouble, the brain has a neurochemical called GABA. GABA is the brain’s calm down chemical like a lullaby for a baby. When the levels of GABA are low, there’s nothing to calm the excitable cells. Exercise helps to increase the GABA in the brain to helpful levels. When the neurochemicals are back to healthy levels, the symptoms of anxiety tend to disappear. Any activity that gets your heart going counts as exercise which is different for everyone.
Anxiety can feel so overwhelming and it can be hard to believe that something as simple and as normal as breathing can be difficult. Strong, deep breathing initiates the relaxation response. The relaxation response neutralizes the surge of neurochemicals that cause anxiety. Breathing is the switch that activates the relaxation response and starts to put symptoms of anxiety back to small enough. Once your teen starts slow deep breathing, your teen’s body will take over and do the rest. The breathing should be going right into your teen’s belly not just their chest. Practice is the best way to make strong deep breathing easier for your teen’s brain to access.
Research suggests that an unhappy belly can make an unhappy brain. The good news is that it doesn’t take too much effort to change it. Eating well is super-important and many teens do not pay enough attention to what they eat. There are trillions of microbes that live in the intestinal tract. These microbes send signals to the brain that can change mood and behavior. For example, if your teen eats too much fast food or too much sugar, then your teen might be knocking the balance of good bacteria in their gut and their mood becomes challenging. Obviously all teens eat unhealthy delicious food, but not overdoing it will be helpful. If your teen focuses on keeping their gut healthy, then their. Symptoms of anxiety might decrease.
5. Being patient
Making sure your teen feels loved and gains some patience for the anxiety they are feeling. Teens are in constant flux and experience the world opening up to them. Anxiety can shift your teen’s focus on the negative and what needs to be changed. Recognizing your teen’s strengths is essential. Reminding your teen that anxiety is something that they feel, not who they are.
Getting some support for your teen and yourself if the anxiety is beyond what you and they can handle is important. Remember there are some strategies to help including going to a therapist.