Strategies To Help Teens Manage Stress and Anxiety
There are free and effective strategies for helping teens cope with anxiety. One is to create a Stress Management Plan. Other ideas include teaching them the benefits of slowing down and paying more attention to their surroundings.
In this Q & A, Allison Gilbert, Senior Writer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, has a wide-ranging conversation with psychologist and anxiety expert Dr. Terri Bacow, who shares practical tools you can use right now to support your teen at home or in school.
Allison Gilbert: In your new book, Goodbye, Anxiety: A Guided Journal for Overcoming Worry, you offer numerous strategies for helping teens manage stress. What are your top three recommendations?
Terri Bacow: Number one is breathing. This is a tried and true strategy. The best thing about focusing on breathing is that you always have this tool with you, and you can’t leave it at home.
Here’s how you do it:
Stop what you’re doing. Breathe in through your nose. Pause. And then exhale slowly. You can do each part for a count of four, but it really doesn’t matter. Pick a number or length of time that works best for you. Breathing instantly makes you feel calmer. I suggest taking a breathing break whenever anxious-thinking begins to feel overwhelming.
My second strategy is to identify when and why you’re feeling anxious. Can you name the specific worry or concern? Labeling our feelings is helpful because it allows us to look at them from a distance. By identifying what’s bothering us, what’s making us feel anxious, we can try to consider our challenges as if they’re happening to a friend, and not us. A great question to ask yourself when you’re feeling anxious is, “What would I tell a friend to do in this exact situation?”
Third is self-compassion. We are very quick to criticize ourselves, and this releases stress hormones. In contrast, when we take care of our emotions, when we offer ourselves a bit of self-compassion, we release endorphins (feel-good chemicals produced by the brain that relax our bodies), and that makes us feel better.
TB: May I add a fourth?
AG: Of course!
TB: I very much believe in the emotional benefits of being proactive. The question to ask yourself when you’re feeling anxious is this: How can I make a plan to fix this problem? Is there a way for me to begin mapping out a solution? An action-oriented mindset stops negative thinking in its tracks.
AG: What are the most common triggers of anxiety these days in tweens and teens?
TB: There is a performance-nature to our culture today that I feel is especially hard on some young people– that we are only as good as our grades or our latest job or our latest internship. All of us are more than what we accomplish.
AG: What are some of the outward signs that parents should pay attention to, signs that may signal their teen is experiencing anxiety?
TB: Anxiety presents itself differently in different teens. Some may become more irritable or grumpy. Others may withdraw from activities. Others may begin avoiding friends.
AG: What are some of the physical manifestations of anxiety?
TB: There are a few. Muscle tension, insomnia (the inability to get enough sleep), headaches, loss of focus and concentration, shortness of breath, and stomach aches.
AG: You offer writing as a tool for managing anxiety. Why have you found writing to be such a useful tool?
TB: Expressing emotions is healthy. Keeping them to yourself is not. Labeling feelings is also useful. For example, if you’re in a car accident, if you talk about it, you’ll tend to recover far more easily from that traumatic experience, at least emotionally, than if you didn’t. It’s therapeutic to write, to get thoughts out of your mind and onto paper.
AG: You also suggest something called “Worry Time.” What’s that?
TB: Setting aside time to worry is ‘Worry Time.’ I think it’s important to make an appointment to worry so the act of worrying doesn’t take over your life. This way, it’s more contained and controllable. Journaling gives you that ‘Worry Time.’ It allows you to make that appointment.
AG: Can you offer a writing exercise parents can share with their tweens and teens?
TB: Sure! I suggest asking teens to write down their top five worries, and then, out of those, ask them to choose which one concerns them most, right at that moment. The exercise is simply deciding what’s most pressing. The idea is not necessarily to continue writing about that one challenge; it’s to pay attention to feelings and to name these concerns. This one act is empowering and reduces anxiety.
AG: In addition to writing, what are some of the other strategies you recommend?
TB: I like to encourage teens to “unfollow” their worries. For this, they can use imagery. They can imagine their negative thoughts floating away on a cloud, or imagine each negative thought occupying a square in a Zoom meeting and each concern leaving the Zoom meeting one by one.