As an educational professional, I have consulted and worked with many teenage students who are trying to cope with stress and anxiety. I am saddened each time to learn about their struggles and feel propelled to help. Teenagers are not immune from stress and anxiety. Just because they are young and somewhat carefree, they still face stress from outside factors and from within themselves. If not controlled, their stress and anxiety may turn into depression. I believe that teenagers may be more prone to anxiety and depression because they do not understand what they are feeling and have likely not yet been taught any significant coping skills. These feelings are new for them, unlike for most adults as we have worked through these same feelings throughout our life experiences. Therefore, it is important that as adults in their lives; whether we are their parent, teacher, coach, relative, or neighbor; we pay attention to their behaviors, know when to recognize there is a problem and then take steps to help them get these feelings under control. Eventually, if anxiety and stress are not brought under control and managed in a young person’s life, he or she may succumb to depression.
What causes this anxiety and how can it be lessened? Following are a few answers that I have learned throughout my career as a teacher and educational consultant.
There are two ways that anxiety can be triggered; externally and internally. External anxiety is caused by something real in a student’s life; such as family problems, death of a loved one, academic challenges, meeting the expectations of teachers and parents, loss of a friendship, moving to a new city, school or state. External stress can also be positive events in a teenager’s life, such as the birth of a sibling, starting middle or high school, learning to drive, beginning a part-time job, going on a first date, or anticipating the start of college.
Internal anxiety is caused by a teenager’s concern about his or her external anxiety and the way it makes him or her feel. In other words, internal anxiety is something chosen and can be very difficult to control because to do so he or she must begin to think differently. Thoughts of a teenager can include, “What is wrong with me?”, “What if I fail?”, “What if I do or say something stupid?”, “No one likes me.”, “I’m ugly.”, “I’m fat.”, “I can’t control my temper with my sibling”., “I have disappointed my parents.”, “I will never amount to anything.”, “What if I go crazy?”, “Why can’t I be smart like everybody else?, “No one will ever love me.”, “Why can’t I control my thoughts?”. All of these thoughts can turn into beliefs by the teenager about him or herself and can subsequently damage their self-concept and lead to depression.
Since external anxiety is in everyone’s lives, including that of teenagers’, as teachers, coaches, parents, aunts, uncles, neighbors or some other adult mentor in their lives, we need to teach them that they can choose to be less affected by events in their lives that cause their anxiety and stress and learn how to control their internal dialogue. It is from internally generated anxiety that they can become obsessive and carried away in their internal dialogue, which results in untrue thoughts and increased body symptoms; such as panic attacks, racing heart, shaking, trembling, sweating, feeling like they are going crazy, nausea, dizziness, and other scary body sensations. Students must learn to stop and give themselves permission to have externally generated anxiety and then tell themselves why they are having it and then let it pass. By not being afraid of these body sensations, the symptoms will gradually lessen along with their anxiety.
Tips for Teenagers:
- Accept and recognize that you are feeling stressed and anxious. Accept the way your body feels and the symptoms of anxiety as a sign that something is bothering you. Know that this is normal.
- Give yourself permission to feel anxious about whatever is bothering you. Don’t try to fight it. Float with the feelings.
- Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply. Slowly breathe in through your nose and hold for 10 seconds and then slowly exhale for 10 seconds. Do this for about a minute or so.
- Talk to yourself with positive and truthful dialogue, such as; “It’s just anxiety, it will go away in a little bit.”, “I will not lose control.”, “I can still continue with what I was doing even if I feel a little spaced out or weird.”, “It won’t hurt me.”, “I am not the only person who has ever felt this way.”, “Many other teenagers are feeling this same way as I am right now.”, “I have not always felt this way.”, “I used to be able to do certain things and I will again.”
- Get busy with something that will distract you away from your feelings of stress and anxiety. When in a state of anxiety, your body is like a car whose accelerated is pressed to the floor and stuck, so get out there and move, exert some energy, and focus on someone or something else. Jog, play tennis, shoot hoops, organize your book bag, go to the gym, clean out a closet, walk the dog, brush and pet the cat, talk to a friend, volunteer in your community, or help a neighbor. Do something!
- Let time pass and try to humor yourself with the way you are feeling. Learn to not take yourself too seriously.
It will take time and lots of practice for a teenager to begin to control the amount of stress and anxiety he or she is feeling. The only way to stop fearing panic and anxiety attacks is to experience them. Working through them and realizing that they are not harmful is a great first step.
It is important to seek a professional whose specialty is counseling teenagers experiencing extreme stress, anxiety and depression. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America or ADAA is a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote the prevention, treatment, and cure of anxiety, depression, and stress-related disorders through education, practice, and research. Their website is ADAA.org where you can become better educated on this topic. Professionals in your community can also be located through their website.