17 Signs Your Teen Is Suffering From Anxiety (& How You Can Help)

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Parenting Advice For How To Recognize Signs of Anxiety Disorder In Your Teenager

When you're the parent of a growing adolescent, you need as much parenting advice as you can possibly get. 

Anxiety can be a normal reaction to stress and navigating life as a teenager can be incredibly stressful. But how do you know if it's simply teenage struggles or something bigger?

In order to help your teen navigate this unsteady time of adolescence and learn how to deal with anxiety, you need to understand what causes anxiety and to spot the common signs.

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First things first, what is anxiety?

Teenage anxiety is becoming more common in America. About 32 percent of all teenagers are currently diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Most likely someone you know or care about is struggling with severe anxiety.

Anxiety is what you feel in response to stress because your brain thinks you are in danger. That perceived sense of danger can be the result of something that physically causes you harm or anticipating it in the future, creating anxiety over events that have yet to happen.

Anxiety can also occur in the absence of thoughts or a trigger. Our brains are designed to work quickly to keep ourselves safe. Your brain will remember when and why you were stressed, so you can better be prepared next time. 

The more your brain uses that remembered pathway, it is again reinforced and activates quicker next time.

To understand the signs of anxiety disorders in teens, it's helpful to first understand how the brain creates anxiety.

The amygdala is the fear center of the brain. It is part of the limbic system, which manages emotions, memory and survival instincts. This almond-shaped structure is important for survival because it's critical to prioritize what scares, hurts, or causes you danger. However, if your amygdala becomes over-reactive, it can create too much anxiety.

So when the amygdala thinks you are in danger, it triggers the release of hormones and adrenaline to activate the flight or fight response. The adrenaline and hormones send blood to your limbs. This makes you alert, stronger, and faster so you can defend yourself or run.

This is a normal and healthy response. But when it is activated when there is no real danger (i.e. anticipatory anxiety), this excess energy is experienced in our bodies longer, resulting in an overall anxious feeling. 

Activation of the amygdala creates a strong emotional reaction that the hippocampus, another brain structure, remembers to keep you safe in the future. Unfortunately, it isn't always the most accurate process.

For example, if your teen experienced panic when taking an exam, his or her brain may connect test-taking with danger. So with every exam, the teen may experience anxiety.

It can be hard to understand what your teenager is thinking at any given moment. Teens experience a constant, huge variety of physical, social, and emotional changes as they grow.  In fact, the rate of brain growth in teens is second only to that in infancy. 

With all of that happening, it can be difficult to identify an anxiety disorder. It is easy to chalk up everything to hormones, but it's not always that.

Here are some common anxiety symptoms in teens.

Physical signs

  • Skin picking (dermatillomania), pulling out hair (trichotillomania), and/or nail biting
  • Frequent headaches, including migraines
  • Chronic upset stomach, irritable bowel, constipation, or diarrhea (Look into the brain-gut connection. When the belly is out of balance, it can send messages to the brain that may create anxiety.)
  • Difficulty sleeping or excessive fatigue
  • Changes in eating habits

Emotional signs

  • Feeling edgy or riled
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritable or restless
  • Unexplained outbursts

Social signs

  • Avoiding social interactions with usual friends or isolating from their peer group
  • Avoiding extracurricular activities
  • Spending more time alone or isolated
  • Poor school performance, missed assignments, or procrastination

Any of these listed items can be expected in teenagers without anxiety. However, these signs can apply to an anxiety disorder, as well. Focus on patterns and frequency of symptoms to determine whether an anxiety disorder needs to be addressed.

If you are concerned your teen may be suffering from anxiety that interferes with relationships, school, and other areas of daily functioning, it is important to get an evaluation from a mental health professional. 

You can help your teen handle stress and anxiety and see which one seems to be a good fit for your teen and then suggest doing that tool together.

Here are 5 helpful anxiety relief tools to help your teen cope.

1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is fully paying attention to what you are feeling, to what you are doing, and to the space surrounding you in a given moment of time. By taking a moment to bring your focus to what is going on right now, it grounds your mind in the present moment.

If your mind is in the present, it cannot worry about the future or ruminate on the past. Simply put, mindfulness can make you less anxious. A 2011 study found mindfulness practices markedly reduced anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Mindfulness takes practice. It is an easy concept to understand and easy to do, recognizing that your mind may be all over the place. A common misconception is to be mindful, you must be stoic with a still mind.

For even the most experienced practitioners, stray thoughts, sensations, and outside sounds can pull one's attention and trigger a self-judgment. Just by noticing that you're having the thought that it is difficult it is to be mindful and observing how that makes you feel is being mindful!

Start with just non-judgmentally observing what is happening for you this moment.

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2. Exercise

Exercise has long been known to be beneficial for mental health, but researchers now understand why. Regular exercise, intense enough to get your heart pumping, increases the neurotransmitters glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in your brain, which sends signals and messages between the neurons in your brain.

Glutamate excites your brain, allowing you to think, act, and remember quick. Too much glutamate creates too much activity and can lead to anxiety. GABA reduces the excitability of glutamate, restoring balance.

During aerobic exercise, glutamate and GABA levels increase in your brain, and when levels of both those neurotransmitters increase, so does your mood. Regular exercise is one of the most reliable, long-term mood boosters available, improving both anxiety and depression.

Any exercise that gets your heart beating faster than if you're sitting is going to count. Just a brisk 10-minute walk or 10 minutes of climbing stairs a couple of times a day will do it. And if you feel like there isn't enough time to squeeze some exercise in, there are many ways to sneak activity into your day.

The goal is to move more, in whatever works for you.

3. Deep breathing

Deep breathing activates your body's natural relaxation response. The relaxation response is a state of deep rest that reduces the body's response to stress (slower heart rate, decreased blood pressure, slower breathing, relaxed muscles) and in turn your emotional response.

Our minds and bodies are connected, and if you can calm one down, the other will follow.

Although gratifying, relaxing on the couch or watching TV will not activate a relaxation response. However, deep abdominal breathing will. By breathing deep, it increases the levels of oxygen in your body, which promoted a state of calm and relaxation.

Breathing also grounds you in the present moment. You cannot breathe in the past nor breath in the future. Anytime you are aware of your breath you are practicing mindfulness, which helps reduce anxiety as well!

To start, sit comfortably in a chair with your eyes closed. Place your right hand on your heart, and your left hand on your belly. Begin to breathe naturally and direct your awareness to how much your left hand moves. Direct your breath down and breath in a way that slowly moves your left hand. Now, shift your awareness to how you feel.

Belly breathing can feel uncomfortable when you first start because your body is not used to it, but with practice, it will become natural. It can also be used anytime and even a few minutes of deep breaths will create calm!

4. Healthy diet

There is a direct connection between our brains and our digestive system, with information going both directions — and actually more information coming from your gut to your brain! An unbalanced stomach can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. So, intestinal distress could be the cause or the result of anxiety, stress, and/or depression.

Being aware of what you eat and how it makes you feel can be a clue to how it is affecting you, but there are some dietary changes that can make a difference. Maintaining a healthy balance of gut bacteria is going to improve your mood.

So, reducing the amount of processed food and sugar in addition to eating healthy food with good bacteria will balance things out.

5. Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy that focuses on the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. With the help of a therapist, you explore the present to recognize how you respond to stress and how you can alter those responses to ease distress.

CBT is tailored to your needs and helps you address real-life problems, improving all kinds of mental health problems, including anxiety.

Brains are incredibly adaptable. Throughout life, neurons create new connections as we learn new skills, allowing you to create new habits. When you have anxiety, it is easy to think this is how life will be for now on. But that is not the case. 

With knowledge, practice, and the right support, you can live without such overwhelming us-ease and worry.

Anxiety is treatable and your child can learn to cope and manage their anxiety successfully with valuable skills that they can take with them into adulthood.

It is not always easy to tell when typical teenage stress crosses over to anxiety. 

Here are additional ways to tell:

  1. Anxious teens are going to worry about a current situation, some future event, or may not even be able to identify the source of their anxiety.
  2. Anxious teens are going to avoid the source or situations that do or may make them anxious. Unfortunately, avoidance is habit forming and an ineffective way to cope. Learning effective coping skills, patience, and encouragement will help your child face their fears and anxiety.
  3. Anxious teens may ask for reassurance repeatedly, even if they have received a lot of it already. Teens need reassurance that their anxiety is not permanent and that whatever situation causes them anxiety will not last.
  4. Anxious teens may overdo safety behaviors. Safety behaviors are things we do to make ourselves feel less anxious. For example, not walking alone at night, ensuring you have your phone if you're going out, etc. An anxious teen is going to cling to what makes them feel safe and will be less willing to take risks.

Adolescence is a time of social challenges and increased academic pressure, and as a result, anxiety and worry can become more intense and isolating. Additionally, teens may reject adult input as they attempt to become more independent. However, anxiety is considered an issue when it causes significant distress or interferes with normal activities.

If you feel your child has anxiety, talk to a mental health provider today. 

An anxious brain is a strong brain because it is trying to save you from constant, perceived danger. It will be persistent at times, but it does not mean it has to control you.

RELATED: 12 Tips For Parenting A Child With Anxiety

Jean Tschampa is a co-owner and principal therapist at Life Care Wellness, a group psychotherapy practice in Glen Ellyn and Chicago (Jefferson Park neighborhood), Illinois. She specializes in wellness, life transition, anxiety, and addiction treatment, and is a Board Certified Coach, as well as a professional counselor.  As a registered pharmacist, Jean can also provide medication therapy management for those experiencing issues with medication.

This article was originally published at Life Care Wellness. Reprinted with permission from the author.