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Understanding Teen Anxiety

How to find calmness in the midst of anxiety.

Flickr Creative Commons/Mesbah Uddin Khan

There is no way around it: we all get stressed from time to time. Stress is a perfectly normal reaction to feeling pressure. It is also response to a demanding circumstance and the very thing that is causing the stress is called a “stressor”. Once the stressor is removed we settle back into a calmer state of functioning; for the most part.

While stress is perfectly normal, operating in a constant state of stress can lead to a host of problems. Plus, it can be detrimental to our physical and emotional wellbeing. Learning healthy coping skills, such as eating healthily, rest and exercise, can help in stress reduction. Luckily, stress doesn't have to be an everlasting problem. Unlike its constituent anxiety, stress comes and goes with the presence or absence of a stressor.

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Those who have chronic and prolonged periods of stress may be experiencing something more problematic, like anxiety. Where stress is a response to an event, anxiety is an emotional state that occurs when we cannot predict the outcome of a situation and we fear the unknown. Stress diminishes with the absence of a stressor, but anxiety doesn't dissipate. It is a constant and persistent emotion that may or may not be related to a known stressor. Anxiety can have a severe impact on day to day functioning and have serious adverse effects on personal relationships.

Sadly many Americans suffer with anxiety. Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million (18%) of American adults age 18 years and older in a given year causing them to be filled with intense emotional distress, fearfulness and uncertainty. Adults aren't the only one's affected by anxiety; so are teens. Approximately 8% of teens ages 13–18 years have an anxiety disorder, with symptoms commonly emerging around age 6. Unfortunately, only about 18% of these youth receive the mental health care they need.

Anxiety is one of those conditions that manifests itself in so many ways i.e., fear, panic, worry, and avoidance and isolation (to name a few). It's an emotion that can take its victim from fully functioning to complete immobility. Anxiety can leave vulnerable teens feeling and believing that they are destined to live a life of gloom and doom. Can you imagine living your life like that day in and day out? Many anxious youth do... What is concerning is that many of these teens don't have the tools they need to cope with their anxious feelings. So many may resort to self-medicating or self-harming because they don't know of another way to bring relief to the all-consuming emotion of anxiety.

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To help these anxious teens it's important to go back to the basics and make sure they are taking care of their health. The basics include:

1. Nutrition

When teens are stressed they often opt for ease and convenience which translates to junk food. According to obesity statistics, U.S. teens are unhealthier today than ever before. According to the Center for Disease Control, obesity affects approximately 17% (12.5 million) of all youth in the U.S. That’s triple the rate from just one generation ago! On the other end of the spectrum, there are those teens who don't eat enough food. According to APA approximately 23% of teens report skipping a meal in the past month because of stress and 39% admit to skipping meals weekly. Poor dietary habits can have an adverse effect on a developing adolescent body. So if we want to help teens tackle anxiety, we have to teach them to eat well and take care of their body.

2. Sleep

Teens aren’t getting enough sleep and report sleeping less than the recommended 8 to 10 hours (National Sleep Foundation). On average teens sleep 7.4 hours on school nights and 8.1 hours on non-school nights. And lack of sleep and stress go hand in hand. Approximately 18% of teens report that when they do not get enough sleep, they feel more stress and 36% say they feel tired because they are stressed out. If we want to help these anxious teens, we have to help them establish a bedtime routine to relax and unwind, and most importantly get enough ZZZ time.

3. Exercise

Teens are not exercising regularly. In fact, a survey found that 1 in 5 teens (20%) report exercising less than once a week or not at all. According to ACSM and CDC guidelines, adolescents should be getting at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. Most of the hour should be dedicated to moderate to vigorous aerobic activity. Sadly, current research shows that only 1 in 4 teenagers get the recommended amount of physical activity.

Along with the basics, teens need to learn skills to calm and soothe themselves when they feel stressed and anxious. They also need to learn coping skills that can build their confidence and self esteem. Last, it's important that they learn new ways to think about and interact with their emotions. Teens can learn to live in the present moment, be mindful of their emotions, and feel more in control of their lives. As adults, we can help teens by understanding the societal and worldly pressures they face and equipping them with the skills they need to persevere in stressful times. Anxiety is a manageable and treatable condition and teens can learn to overcome anxiety.

Flickr Creative Commons/Derek Gavey

Teens are not born with the skills that they need to work through stress and anxiety, rather they have to be taught coping mechanisms and more importantly practice them. Here is the good news: once teens develop these skills they will carry with them throughout the rest of their lives and hopefully get passed down to the next generation.

More from Raychelle Cassada Lohmann Ph.D.
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