“We keep it to ourselves or bottle it in.” This are words local students used to describe how teens deal with stress. In September, I spoke to our local high school’s health classes on stress and anxiety. From a show of their hands, the majority acknowledged they deal with or have dealt with anxiety.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders among teens, affecting 25% of all teens and 30% of teen girls (Nat’l Institute of Mental Health). Your teens are no different. In fact, the students came up with a comprehensive list of how they experience stress: fatigue, obsessive thoughts, emotional exhaustion, depression, loss of hope, loss of appetite, worrying, restlessness, sick stomach, hyperventilating, loss of sleep, body being out of control, migraines, being overly sensitive, tense muscles, lack of concentration, irritability, overthinking, and having a racing heart.
Do those symptoms seem overwhelming? Can you image pretending like you’ve got it all together when these things are going on inside of you? How do kids cope with all these stresses?
Students reported they keep a lot of their stress to themselves or try to bottle it up inside. However, they identified unhealthy ways teen cope with anxiety: self-harm, drinking, drugs, smoking, isolation, being angry, being perfect, not eating, overeating, and having suicidal thoughts. These are accurate ways teens try to numb anxious feelings or deal with situations they can’t control.
Unfortunately, teens are stressed today in multilayered ways. Triggers of stress identified by local teens were school, sports, responsibility, perfectionism, expectations of parents, expectations of friends and also of themselves. They also cited past choices, fitting in, physical appearance, social media, and fear of missing out as causes of anxiety. Perhaps the deepest causes of stress mentioned were parental choices, relationships, trauma, and abuse.
If 25% of all teens struggle with the above situations, how can adults in their lives help them? Here are 5 healthy ways you can help the anxious teens in your life.
- Pay attention to their anxiety. The physical and behavioral symptoms listed above are indicators your teen’s body is responding to stress and fear. Our bodies respond to anxiety by fighting, fleeing, or freezing as self-protection. Don’t discount your teen’s experience when their bodies are telling them they’re not okay.
- Listen to their fears, feelings, and support them with empathy. Being heard and understood is a big component in relieving anxiety.
- Put their fears or stresses in context of a bigger picture. Teens tend to focus on what’s in front of them. Help them see the situation in a bigger context rather than just the here and now. However, do so on their level, not in a condescending manner.
- Teach them to correct faulty thinking. Teens often talk, feel, and think in absolutes—always/never, everyone/no one, none/all. For example, “Everyone at school hates me.” Empathize with your teen about their feelings, but then help them see the truth of the situation. Absolute thinking perpetuates anxiety by promoting hopelessness and fear.
- Get them professionals when needed—your family doctor, a counselor, or other mental health professionals specializing in anxiety. Don’t let them carry this struggle alone. Often parents or family dynamics add to an adolescent’s stress and they need an outside, neutral person to talk to.
These tips aren’t just for teens, but are applicable to adults, too. Take care of your stress an anxiety, too.