Is your teen experiencing run-of-the-mill worries, or dealing with a pattern of excessive anxiety? Learn the difference, as well as 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 big test or an upcoming game, perhaps—or experiencing more significant symptoms of anxiety. High school is full of stressful moments that warrant some worrying, and students 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.
Related Books from Magination Press
My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic
Can you spare 30 minutes to feel less anxious?
Go ahead. Think about how your life would be different if you were less anxious. What would change? Would you try out for the basketball team? Ask someone out on a date? Would you sleep better and feel less tense? Would you feel calmer and happier?
My Anxious Mind outlines a simple and proven plan to help you understand and deal with your anxiety and panic. It is chock full of simple-to-use tools and strategies that easily fit into any teen’s busy routine. (ages 12-18)
How to Feel Good: 20 Things Teens Can Do
Being a teenager can be tough. It can be really hard sometimes to feel good about yourself and your abilities. New relationships and experiences are happening all around you, and that can make you insecure, overwhelmed, or stressed out.
How to Feel Good will help you slow down and pay attention to how you feel and what you think about yourself.
This book presents 20 simple, mind-healthy skills to guide you toward self-awareness and to teach you to stay calm and self-confident. You will also find additional strategies, self-reflection questions, and easy-to-do tools to help end frustration and develop patience so that you can achieve your goals.
Are you ready? Do 1 or learn all 20 skills and take charge of you. You are just a step away from feeling more confident, secure, and GREAT! (ages 13-18)
Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings
What is the point of guilt? Or anxiety? Or hope? Just what are these emotions trying to tell you? Everything!
Emotions are a powerful and extraordinary part of being human. Your emotions serve as an instant cueing system to inform you about situations and motivate you to take actions.
Anxiety can sharpen your focus and direct your attentions.Pride can lead you to take on something new and challenging.Guilt can motivate you to correct situations that interfere with your relationships.
All of your emotions are valuable — they inform you, affect the decisions you make, and can motivate you to reach your goals.
Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings will help you gain powerful insight into a significant part of who you are. While your emotional life may feel tumultuous, your emotions are priceless. It’s time to figure out just what your emotions are telling you! (ages 15-18)
School Made Easier: A Kid’s Guide to Study Strategies and Anxiety-Busting Tools
Do you ever get nervous before a big test?
Do you get butterflies in your stomach before giving a presentation?
Do you ever lose track of papers?
Do you cram to finish long-term assignments at the last minute?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, this book is for you!
School Made Easier will show you how to:
Understand your academic stressUse “mind games” to feel less stressed and more confidentProblem-solve to cope with stressful situationsOrganize your papers and filesUse executive functioning skills to make homework and studying easierManage your time wiselyStudy more effectivelyStay calm and cool on test day
And much more!
Take a look inside, and start reducing your anxiety and increasing your confidence in school.
Believe it or not, school can be less stressful — and even fun! (ages 8-13)