9 Ways To Help Your Teen Address Anxiety
Teens navigate many different forces that can impact their mental health. Some of those may include pressures from peers, school, social media, politics, and effects on their lives following the COVID-19 pandemic. But parents can provide essential support to help reduce teens’ feelings of stress and anxiety. From limiting exposure to causes of stress to showing them skills that combat anxiety, there are different strategies parents can teach their teens to use during tough times.
Start By Recognizing Anxiety
Sometimes young people try to hide their emotions from parents, friends, and peers. But other times, anxiety is hard to miss. When teens experience anxiety, they may have repetitive thoughts or concerns that make them feel anxious at a level out of proportion with normal expectations. Parents can recognize anxiety in young people when they notice the signals.
Anxiety may cause physical symptoms like headaches, sweating, nausea, or dizziness for many adolescents. Things to look for include your young person having trouble calming themselves, having sleep issues, or blanking out during exams or other pressure-filled situations. Some adolescents with high anxiety levels may display catastrophic thinking. This is when they take an actual situation and spiral into what-if thinking until it takes on monstrous proportions.
Not All Anxiety Is Bad
We all need some anxiety in our lives. That’s because not all anxiety is bad – sometimes, it is a protective warning signal. Dr. Lisa Damour, a psychologist and author of The Emotional Lives of Teenagers, explains, “Emotions are always giving you feedback on the world around you and how well you are managing what’s coming your way.” She reminds parents, “…we want kids to be attuned to that feedback. Anxiety provides a key alert if they’re with a bunch of friends and there’s pressure to do something they may not feel so good about. They want to pay attention to that.” Sometimes anxiety just alerts you to your general discomfort and can help you to up your game. For example, anxiety can give you butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous about an exam, going out on a date, or having to speak in public. While those emotions may feel uncomfortable, it is important to remind yourself they are only temporary.
But some young people experiencing anxiety may be unable to focus at school, a job, or at home. Grades or friendships could suffer. Some teens could be at risk of turning to dangerous ways of coping, like drinking or illegal drug use. For other young people, experiencing anxiety disorders can be associated with higher rates of suicide attempts. If you or someone you know needs help, call, text, or chat 988 or visit 988lifeline.org.
Be sure to let your teens know you stand by them and will be there to ensure the best for their mental health and emotional well-being. Here are nine ways for teens (and adults!) to combat anxiety:
- Reach out to your healthcare provider. Checking in with healthcare professionals who regularly handle issues, including stress, anxiety, or depression, is a great place to start. They offer resources and coping strategies and can help you contact mental health professionals for more support. When young people suffer from high levels of anxiety, professional treatments can be highly effective. And consider this – it is a sign of strength to seek professional help and guidance. Parents can model this for teens so they know it’s okay to turn to others in challenging times.
- Learn more about what causes anxiety. Understanding what anxiety is and what can trigger it helps you better understand how to relieve it. Some people are more “wired” to experience anxiety than others – it’s biologically built-in and does not necessarily have a cause that triggers it. For some teens, a wide range of hard experiences in childhood or adolescence can trigger anxiety problems. Some common experiences may include living through a traumatic event, physical or emotional abuse, exposure to drug use, being or living away from home, peer pressure, or losing a loved one.
- Try deep breathing. This is a simple technique found to help manage strong emotions. It’s also a discreet technique to use at any time or place. Try this: Sit down and place a hand on your abdomen. Breathe in deeply through your nose (for about four seconds), allowing your belly to rise. Hold the breath in your lungs (for about four seconds), and then exhale through your mouth with your lips in the shape of an “O” (for about six seconds). Pick a number that works for you if four to six seconds feels too long. Repeat this for three to five minutes to let your body relax.
- Challenge your thoughts. Are you having irrational thoughts? Anxiety can magnify irrational thoughts. Your imagination may make thoughts worse than they are in reality. You can reduce concerns by taking a moment to challenge these thoughts and ask what evidence exists to support them. Try this: Catch your thoughts. Usually, anxiety-provoking thoughts begin with a word or phrase, like “I should” or “What if I don’t?” Then ask yourself if facts – or emotions – fuel this thought. Remind yourself that the scenario you are worried about hasn’t actually happened – you are creating it in your mind. Then ask how likely it is that your fear could come true. Finally, ask yourself, even if your fear was to come true, would it still matter in a week, a month, or a year?
- Exercise or get some physical activity. While keeping your muscles in shape is important, it’s also essential to build mental stamina! That’s what happens when you choose to challenge your body physically. As you do, the brain receives positive messages that help it stay strong. Exercise doesn’t only have to mean going to the gym, working out with weights, or taking a class. Plenty of other activities like gardening, dancing, paddleboarding, Tai Chi, and even video games have a physical component that benefits the brain. Sometimes when you are most anxious, exercise alone can relax you because your stress hormones reduce as your body experiences exercise as if you’ve outrun the threat.
- Get a good night’s sleep. It’s not just adults who have trouble getting their zzz’s. For many teens, getting a good night’s sleep is tough. From homework to chatting with friends to social media and more, plenty of distractions make it hard to get to bed. Sleep affects physical and mental health and mood. It’s needed to move newly-learned things into your memory. Young people need nine to ten hours of sleep at night to reap its significant benefits during their waking hours. Get more sleep by avoiding caffeine in the evening and avoiding artificial light from phones, tablets, and computers for at least an hour before going to bed. If you wake up in the middle of the night feeling worried, get out of bed, leave the lights off, sit somewhere other than your bed, and go back to sleep when you feel drowsy. If you stay in bed, your anxiety may increase and make it hard to get back to sleep. Being well-rested makes stressful situations more manageable.
- Write in a journal. Writing things down in a journal creates a safe place to express your feelings. “Journaling” lets you organize and clarify thoughts and emotions while learning to control them. When writing, you can express yourself in ways that let you worry less and write more. Take note; you don’t have to have the perfect “journal,” either. A pad of paper or the computer works just fine for putting your words down.
- Read a book. This, too, can be a simple technique to use just about anywhere or at any time. Reading enables your brain to focus on something else that has nothing to do with what’s making you feel anxious. Books offer an instant vacation for your mind. Did you know when you read, your brain visualizes scenes, hears dialogue, and even imagines certain smells and tastes? Reading helps the body relax and boosts happiness.
- Socialize or connect with others. Reach out to friends or family members when you feel anxious. There is a connection between loneliness and anxiety – so break it. Instead, build meaningful connections that may help prevent anxiety in the first place. If someone reaches out to you, don’t ignore them, thinking you’ll get back to them later. Instead, take a moment to answer them – even if it means telling them you can’t talk right then. Just hearing one another is beneficial in helping to feel better.
Encourage teens to practice these coping strategies at home, school, or work. With regular practice, these skills become easier and easier to use. So when anxiety strikes, they’ve got highly effective strategies to reduce it. If they need additional support, encourage them to understand that professionals can really help them, and that they deserve to feel better.
If you want to learn even more, national organizations offer helpful information and support. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America is a group of international mental health care providers that concentrate on the prevention and treatment of anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. The JED Foundation works to protect teens’ and young adults’ emotional health and prevent suicide by offering skills and support. To find a professional near you, start with your pediatrician or conduct a search on Psychology Today.