Being a teenager is hard enough, but the COVID-19 pandemic has added new aspects of uncertainty, isolation, and potential danger to the challenges teens navigate. Is your teen experiencing run-of-the-mill worries, or dealing with a pattern of excessive anxiety?

In this repost from January 2018, you can explore the difference and find some tips to help you spot signs of anxiety in teens.

For many parents, it’s difficult to understand whether your teenager is feeling worried over routine events and situations—a fallout with a friend, perhaps—or experiencing more significant symptoms of anxiety. The teen years are full of stressful moments that warrant some worrying, and teens sometimes even relish and thrive on the modern-day stress culture. For example, a teen saying, “Ugh, I have so much work to do!” could consider it a badge of honor.

But roughly 31 percent of teens in the U.S. experience more extreme symptoms that constitute an anxiety disorder.1 For these teens, the symptoms go beyond the occasional sleepless night or emotional outburst, signaling an underlying condition. So, how do you know the difference between an appropriate amount of worry and possible excessive anxiety?

What is the difference between anxiety and worry?

It’s normal for teenagers (and people of all ages) to worry from time to time—it makes sense to feel worried before the first day of school, for example. In some instances, feeling some anxiety about a situation can actually help keep us safe. Imagine that you encounter a large, snarling dog during a walk; your mind starts to get anxious and communicates a feeling of danger, and you slowly back away.

What escalates those worries into unhelpful anxiety is when your mind tells you that a situation is dangerous when it isn’t, or when the chance of danger is very small or unlikely. That communication causes your body to react as if the danger is real. One way to think of it: Replace the large, snarling dog in the previous example with a tiny Chihuahua, but imagine that your body responds with the same fight-or-flight reaction. In that instance, you’re experiencing unhelpful anxiety.

What are some anxiety symptoms in teens?

For teenagers throughout every generation, much of the anxiety they experience revolves around being left out or being judged by their peers. But this generation of teenagers also faces the relatively new phenomenon of social media pressures. Bundled together, it can be a lot to handle and can result in anxiety.

Typically, most anxiety and fears diminish or disappear in less than six months. If your teen has been feeling anxious off and on for a long time, or if the anxiety doesn’t pass in a few days, it can be considered excessive.

In teenagers, anxiety is typically made up of three components: an anxious mind, an anxious body, and anxious actions. These three components feed off of each other, and create a system we refer to as the Worry Wheel.

The Worry Wheel starts when your teen experiences a thought that makes him or her anxious, like, “What if I bomb my audition for the school play?” From there, the anxious body responds, and your teen starts to feel the physical sensations of anxiety: a quickening heartbeat, rapid breathing, sweating, and feelings of queasiness or tension. The anxious mind feeds the anxious body, delivering more anxious thoughts that cause more intense physical sensations. Keep in mind that teenagers also face increased amounts of physical anxiety than adults because their hormones are still in flux and working to self-regulate.

The third piece of the Worry Wheel is anxious actions, which are the things your teen does to feel safe or cope with the feelings of anxiety. This is the behavior he or she may exhibit to avoid the envisioned worst-case scenario. When it comes to the audition for the school play, your teen might stay home or pretend to be sick in order to avoid it—that’s an anxious action, and while it makes him or her feel less tense and temporarily quiets the mind, it doesn’t resolve the anxiety that started the cycle in the first place. Some teens may also turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, an anxious action that can cause serious harm and should be addressed immediately.

How do I know if my teenager’s anxiety is excessive?

When the Worry Wheel cycle repeats itself often enough, a teenager’s anxiety can become intense and excessive. To define what is considered excessive, take into account these four factors: disproportionate, disruptive, distressing, and duration. If your teen feels the same level of anxiety about a test in an easy subject as a test that required hours of studying, his or her anxiety is disproportionate to the situation. If your teen is so anxious during the test that it’s hard to concentrate or think clearly, the anxiety has become disruptive. If your teen is deeply bothered by the intensity of his or her anxiety, it can be considered distressing, and therefore excessive. And finally, the duration of your teen’s anxiety is a factor. Typically, most anxiety and fears diminish or disappear in less than six months. If your teen has been feeling anxious off and on for a long time, or if the anxiety doesn’t pass in a few days, it can be considered excessive.

How can I help my teenager with excessive anxiety?

If you are parenting a teen with excessive anxiety, getting professional help is an important step. Our Guide to Therapy for Parents of Teens is a helpful resource to help both you and your teen choose a therapist and prepare for an initial visit.

Reference List

¹National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A), National Institute of Mental Health

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