Has your child been acting differently lately? Do they have trouble concentrating on schoolwork, show feelings of overwhelming sadness, or have unexplained losses of appetite or energy? Are they negative, irritable, and do they (in the rare times they speak up) describe a sense of numbness in their day-to-day life? You could be dealing with a teen who’s grappling with anxiety and depression.
These are easy-to-miss signs, often mistaken for teen angst. Everyone has dealt with feelings of anxiety at some point in their life, but having them on a regular basis can indicate a greater underlying issue. Research suggests these reactions are our natural fight or flight responses to dangerous situations. However, our current world causes us to use them as a reason to turn away from anything that triggers overwhelming stress.
Panic, anxiety, and fear are powerful emotions that can cause us to switch our behavior patterns. Severe anxiety can cause a part of our mind to go into survival mode as it tries to find distractions to bring us back into better spirits.
Sometimes a mixture of panic and anxiety can trigger panic attacks (a sudden rush of intense fear or disabling anxiety). These episodes can be extremely overwhelming, especially for teens that are trying to manage other mental health disorders alongside them.
So what does having anxiety feel like? Well, we often don’t realize anxiety can have an effect on our whole body. Certain reactions get intensified, like:
Understanding why we get anxiety is an important step in learning how to properly manage it. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) discovered about one in five people in the United States experiences crippling anxiety requiring external methods to take care of it.
But we should all be mindful that five out of five people experience anxiety at some point in their life. We can never truly escape this feeling, but we can fight the negative and often unfair beliefs about it by having open conversations about its effects on our minds from a young age.
Earlier we mentioned something called fight or flight responses. These reactions are linked with our ability to assess dangerous or anxiety-driven situations around us.
As we move through the teen years, we start to see a variety of changes that unintentionally provide us with tools to handle the real world. Our ability to control our reactions to stress and anxiety gets better as we move into our later teen years. This is a necessary process for all of us as extraordinary self-control is vital to a happy and healthy future.
Puberty leads to changing brain structure, causing teen minds to constantly evolve throughout their high school years. Our functional networks within the brain adapt well into our early 20s — which explains why our connections with different parts of the mind grow stronger as we transition into adulthood. Think of a child’s mind as a bunch of domestic flights that have one or two international ones engaging in long-distance travel. As we grow older, the number of international flights increases with faster, stronger engagement.
Therefore, the networks we have from childhood are completely redirected when we reach our teenage years. This is why we see our life goals, interests, motivations, and personalities changing as we start to discover who we are. Here’s the catch: These networks are clearly vital to our growth, which can make it problematic for us when panic and anxiety start to interfere with their development.
Trauma during the teenage years can have a greater impact on our mental health than similar trauma in our adult life. Teen anxiety messes with our self-controlling abilities and disrupts our brain connections.
But thankfully, we can reverse these damaging effects with counseling, healthy coping skills, and medication (if needed). It’s also helpful to tackle childhood milestones (like getting your driver's license, applying to college, or completing your degree) that further reinforce confidence and boost our brain resilience.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) as “excessive anxiety or worry, most days for at least six months, about a number of things such as personal health, work, social interactions, and everyday routine life circumstances.”
The stress we feel in anxiety-producing activities like public speaking, performing on stage, or confronting our fears is pretty normal at all stages of life. However, GAD causes teens to maintain a constant state of stress and anxiety that leads to a faster heart rate, chest pain, nightmares, and senseless fears. Everyday activities (like school or work) start to become incredibly overwhelming. Anxiety can stem from school-related triggers that range from homework and test anxiety to a fear of failure or fear surrounding the health and safety of loved ones.
These teens are often described from childhood as “worrywarts” who fall prey to overthinking. They may require constant assurance and actively put off school assignments due to their fears. Without help, GAD symptoms grow worse and can color their social interactions, school success, and future pursuits outside of high school.
Generalized anxiety disorder is categorized into three types of anxiety:
Sometimes the disorder can also have physical symptoms, like:
Thankfully, there are many strategies — like relaxation methods that regulate breathing and ease muscle tension — that can help reduce the impact of GAD. Calming statements like “I got this” and “I can get through this,” or coping cards filled with positive reinforcement, can help kids relax whenever they’re in a state of anxiousness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes a panic disorder as “having repeated episodes of sudden, unexpected, intense fear that come with symptoms like heart pounding, having trouble breathing, or feeling dizzy, shaky, or sweaty.” These periods of sudden, unexpected fear are called panic attacks and can be scary to experience without proper tools to combat them.
A panic attack is an overreaction to the body’s natural response to what we perceive as “danger.” The amygdala (the part of the brain that regulates the earlier mentioned fight or flight response) stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS, a part of the nervous system responsible for directing the body’s reactions to dangerous or stressful situations) and sends adrenaline throughout the body, pushing blood and oxygen into the arms, legs, and brain.
Panic attacks increase these responses substantially, causing a racing heart, heavy breathing, and hyperventilation (fast and deep breathing). People who’ve experienced one describe their chest feeling tight and their breathing patterns becoming irregular, although they’re still able to maintain enough oxygen flow throughout the body. Our current research is unable to pinpoint why this happens to us, however, cues of past traumatic events can contribute to what triggers one.
Some of the signs and symptoms of panic disorders in early childhood include:
Panic disorders can be tricky in adolescents. A child would need to meet the following criteria to be diagnosed:
The first step in preventing panic attacks is to learn more about them and understand them for what they are. Taking the time to research panic disorder and identify triggers that cause panic attacks can help lessen their impact.
Also, like most anxiety-induced disorders, panic disorder is easily treatable with cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressant medication, and response prevention. A lot of times, therapists will help you pinpoint ways to manage panic attack symptoms (like shaking your hands, wiggling your toes, and counting backward in threes).
Despair can feel like a sickness as it sucks away a lot of our natural joy. Depression can add to that sickness, sitting like a large stone in the pit of your stomach. Stanford Children’s Health reports, “. . . the risk for the condition can begin in childhood or the early teens, however, and increases steadily through the mid-20s. Around 11% of young people will have experienced an episode of depression by the end of his or her teenage years.”
There’s a common mistaken belief about depression that labels it a “weakness.” Somehow, many believe depression can only occur to those who don’t know how to handle day-to-day life. These beliefs are false and further prolong a damaging view of the struggles surrounding depression.
In reality, depression can be a difficult thing to overcome and often requires strength of will and outside resources to properly regulate. The good news is, overcoming depression and building a life that ensures long-term happiness is absolutely possible.
It comes to no one’s surprise that a lot of people’s depression origin stories date back to their teen years. Our brain, cognitive (thinking and reasoning), and social development go through profound changes during this time. It’s only natural that teens experience a range of emotions, moods, and fears affecting their thoughts. However, an ongoing state of self-critical thoughts can cause a person to spiral down toward suicidal tendencies.
When you become good at convincing others “you’re fine,” people no longer take a second look at the mask you now wear. This is a time in most people’s lives when their relationships with their loved ones are strained. It’s unfortunately common for teens to feel isolated and misunderstood by their family members. But it’s one thing to spend less time with your loved ones and another thing entirely to detach yourself from them due to feelings of hopelessness.
We don’t have an answer for what causes depression. However, we do have a list of identifiable symptoms that can clue us in on what people are experiencing. These symptoms include:
Everyone deals with depression differently, but luckily, treatment can be personalized to fit your own unique experiences.
Our Adolescent Program at SUN Behavioral Houston includes three service levels:
Inpatient Teen Therapy Program: Sometimes, especially when a teen is a danger to themself or others, they may benefit from the comprehensive support and structure of inpatient care. During their stay, they will receive the 24/7 attention and treatment necessary to get back on a healthy path.
Adolescent Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP): PHP might be right for patients transitioning from inpatient care or who may need more intensive treatment in a time of crisis to prevent the need for hospitalization.
Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP): Our teen IOP is designed for the person who may be stepping down from partial hospitalization but still needs the support and structure IOP provides. It can also be appropriate for patients who may need more intensive treatment than that offered by traditional outpatient care.
We at SUN understand how difficult it is to take the first step. Our dedicated staff prioritizes mental wellness and personalized treatment for youth issues like teen anxiety, panic disorder, and depression. To learn more, visit our website for teen counseling resources or call us at (713) 796-2273.
How do you help a teenager with anxiety?
It can be difficult to know how to parent a teen dealing with anxiety and depression. There are some recovery options to explore for your child. Some of these include:
What are the signs of anxiety in a teenager?
It can be easy to write off signs of teen anxiety as normal teenage angst. However, there are a few tell-tale signs to look out for, such as:
Is teenage anxiety a thing?
Teen anxiety is definitely an issue among high schoolers and even younger kids. In fact, the National Institutes of Health discovered that between 2007 and 2012, anxiety disorders went up about 20% in children and teens. And current research only further proves these numbers have continued to climb. It’s important to talk to teens about how anxiety can affect them and equip them with healthy skills to manage stress.