Health And Wellness

How To Immediately Know If Your Teen Is Suffering From Anxiety — Or Just Stress

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Teenagers expressing anxiety in different ways

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

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

To help your teen navigate this unsteady time of adolescence, you need to understand what causes anxiety and spot the common signs.

RELATED: 5 Ways To Rescue Your Kids From A Stressed Out Childhood

Here's how to know immediately if your teen is suffering from anxiety:

1. 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, you know or care about someone struggling with severe anxiety.

Anxiety is a response to stress because your brain thinks you are in danger. That perceived danger can be from 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 be prepared next time.

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

2. How the brain creates anxiety

To understand the signs of anxiety in teens, you must know how the brain creates it.

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 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 experiences panic when taking an exam, their 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. Teens experience various physical, social, and emotional changes as they grow. The rate of brain growth in teens is second only to that in infancy. It can be challenging to identify an anxiety disorder. It is easy to chalk everything up to hormones, but it's not always that.

RELATED: 9 Reasons Why Anxiety Disorders In Teens Is On The Rise

Here are some common anxiety symptoms in teens.

1. Physical signs

Skin picking (dermatillomania), pulling out hair (trichotillomania), 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

2. Emotional signs

Feeling edgy or riled

Difficulty concentrating

Irritable or restless

Unexplained outbursts

4. 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 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 by seeing which one seems to be a good fit for your teen and then suggest using 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. 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 to do if you recognize that your mind may be all over the place. A common misconception is that 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. Start with non-judgmental observation of what is happening at this moment.

RELATED: 9 Mental Health Apps That Can Help Kids & Teens With Anxiety & Depression

2. Exercise

Exercise benefits mental health, and 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 quickly. 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 that improve anxiety and depression.

Any exercise that gets your heart beating faster than if you're sitting counts. A brisk 10-minute walk or 10 minutes of climbing stairs a couple of times 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 way 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 emotions. Our minds and bodies are connected. 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. Deep breathing increases the levels of oxygen in your body, which promotes a state of calm and relaxation.

Breathing also grounds you in the present moment. You cannot breathe in the past or the future. When you are aware of your breath, you are practicing mindfulness. This 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. Breathe naturally and direct your awareness to how much your left hand moves. Direct your breath down and breathe in a way that slowly moves your left hand. Now, shift you focus to how you feel.

Belly breathing can feel uncomfortable when you start because your body isn't used to it. But, with practice, it will become natural. It can also be used anytime. 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 more information coming from your gut to your brain! An unbalanced stomach can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain sends signals to the gut. So, intestinal distress could be the cause or the result of anxiety, stress, or depression.

Being aware of what you eat and how it makes you feel can be a clue to how it affects you, but some dietary changes can make a difference. Maintaining a healthy balance of gut bacteria is going to improve your mood. Reducing the amount of processed food and sugar and 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 various mental health problems, including anxiety.

Brains are incredibly adaptable. Throughout life, neurons create new connections as we learn new skills, allowing us to make new habits. When you have anxiety, it is easy to think this is how life will be from now on. But that is not the case. With knowledge, practice, and support, you can live without such overwhelming us-ease and worry.

Anxiety is treatable, and your child can learn to cope and manage successfully by using these valuable skills 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 recognize anxiety:

Anxious teens worry about a current situation or some future event or may not even be able to identify the source of their anxiety. Anxious teens avoid the source or the situations of the anxiety. Unfortunately, avoidance is habit forming and an ineffective way to cope. Learning coping skills, patience, and encouragement will help your child face their fears and anxiety.

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 causing them to be anxious will not last.

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. Anxious teens will 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 an issue when it causes significant distress or interferes with activities.

If your child has anxiety problems, you can talk to a mental health provider today. Anxious brains are strong since they try to save you from perceived danger. Anxiety will persist, 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. She specializes in wellness, life transition, anxiety, and addiction treatment, and is a Board Certified Coach and professional counselor.

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