There are many different types of anxiety disorders, including:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Separation anxiety disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
The target of the anxiety separates one type of disorder from another. For example, while people with separation anxiety disorder may experience distress when separated from a loved one, teens with social anxiety disorder may feel terrified when asked to endure a social situation involving strangers.
While the target of the anxiety might be different, the symptoms these illnesses produce tend to be quite similar. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that teens with anxiety disorders tend to experience episodes of sweating and hyperventilating when they’re asked to endure the situation or thing that provokes their anxiety. These teens have racing hearts, scattered thoughts and sweating bodies. They spiral into more and more nervousness, unless they can get away from the thing that causes their anxiety.
Unfortunately, just moving away from the trigger rarely produces long-lasting relief. These triggers are unremarkable, everyday things that a teen might be asked to face hundreds of times during the course of a week or a month. Even when the teen is away from the trigger, the teen might worry about coming across that trigger at a later time. Just thinking about the trigger can cause an attack of anxiety to appear.
Research highlighted by the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that children with anxiety disorders have unusual activity in specific portions of the brain, when compared to brain activity in kids who don’t have these disorders. Circuits that should be regulating a child’s sense of fear and flight are haywire in children with anxiety disorders, allowing their sensations to spin out of control when they’re exposed to something that might produce only mild worry in another person.
But anxiety disorders don’t stem from nature alone, says the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. While researchers writing here suggest that a tendency toward nervousness and anxiety can be inborn, parents can also play a role in training a child to be nervous. Parents with their own higher levels of anxiety can, inadvertently, teach small children that the world is a scary place that should be approached with caution, and their children model that behavior as they grow. When these children reach adolescence and they begin to function as adults, all of that training can bear bitter fruit and allow a child to experience a full-blown disorder involving anxiety.
Why Substance Abuse?
Research done on adults confirms a strong link between anxiety disorders and substance abuse. In fact, Medscape suggests that people with anxiety disorders are two to three times more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder at some point in life, when compared to people who don’t have anxiety disorders.
This tie is due, in part, to a person’s need to find relief. Living with an endless pit of worry that’s just waiting to open up is incredibly difficult, and that’s especially true when the trigger involves something common, like a social situation. Teens with anxiety might think of drugs or alcohol as a way to make their worry go away.
For example, a teen with a social phobia may find it intensely hard to handle a party, even if the people in that party are supportive of the teen and their choices. The teen may be convinced that everyone is watching and looking for errors, and even small little episodes can leave a teen feeling convinced that everyone is laughing at their expense. Every moment holds the excruciating certainty that people will laugh. It seems impossible to control.
On the surface, drugs might seem like a good solution. A teen who drinks before a party like this can seem loose-limbed and relaxed, which might make social connections easier to hold. And the drug can slow down the brain, so anxious feelings are less likely to appear. But in time, teens may find that they need to drink more before every party to reach that relaxation. They may begin to lean on drinking in order to handle other activities, like sitting in a classroom or talking at the dinner table. An addiction can quickly follow.
Anxiety Disorder Treatment
Of those adolescents with a diagnosable anxiety disorder, only about 20% get the treatment they need, says the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Anxiety disorders in teens are often treated using a talk-based therapy format. Teens with anxiety are accustomed to hiding their issues and refusing to speak openly about what’s worrying them and how they’d like to handle that worry.
Therapy is designed to break down that wall of silence so teens can really open up about their thought patterns and pick up skills so they can change those habits for the better.
Cognitive therapy for anxious teens tends to follow two tracks, according to Contemporary Pediatrics. First is exposure. Teens with anxiety are accustomed to avoiding their triggers as much as possible, and in time, that trigger can assume a great deal of power in the teen’s mind. Breaking down that power means allowing the teen to experience that trigger in very small chunks. Over time, the teen can learn that the trigger isn’t really life-threatening or worrisome at all.
Second is restructuring. During this process, teens with anxiety are encouraged to reveal the thoughts and emotions they experience when they’re in the midst of an anxious episode. Then they have the opportunity to challenge those thoughts and fears so they can think about the trigger in a whole new way.
A teen with anxiety caused by spiders might begin this therapy by looking at photos of spiders, and then discussing what those photos make the teen think of. Thoughts involving death or maiming can be directly confronted with education and training. Not all spiders are poisonous, the therapist might point out, and the teen might use that thought to confront the fear the spider photos produce. In time, the teen may be able to stand next to a spider in a cage without feeling overly anxious. Eventually, that teen may even be able to handle a spider.
It’s important to note that these therapies don’t flood a teen with experiences. Teens aren’t pushed to accept situations before they’re ready to do so. In this form of therapy, teens have a great deal of control and a lot of important things to say. They’re not asked to cry their way through something that feels overwhelming. The therapy can move as slowly as the teen requires. The idea is to train, not intimidate, so the teen has control.
Amending a teen’s lifestyle might also be an important part of the therapy process. Treatments for drug abuse fall under this heading, as teens with drug problems often need to use cognitive approaches to move past drug triggers, so they don’t succumb to cravings for drugs. But there are other productive steps teens can take in order to make their lives a little less stressful and a little more supportive. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, anxious teens should learn to:
- Develop a healthy sleep schedule and stick to it.
- Exercise on a regular basis.
- Eat a balance diet that’s low in sugar and caffeine.
- Set realistic goals that don’t put too much pressure on the teen.
- Engage in a relaxing hobby, like yoga or hiking.
Therapists can help teens to develop these schedules, or teens may find it beneficial to enroll in an acute care program that manages these steps for clients. Acute programs can work like a reset button for anxious teens, allowing them to live in a safe and controlled environment that’s relatively trigger-free, so they can really work on amending their thought patterns and behaviors.
Next Generation Village offers both acute and outpatient programs for teens with anxiety disorder and substance use disorder. Cognitive therapy, medication management and lifestyle coaching are all available for teens in need, and treatment programs are eminently customizable, depending on the needs of the teen and the issues at hand. Enrollment is quick and easy and it’s open now. Interested parties can call the number at the top of the page to speak with a specialist and smooth the path to a healthier life.
Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.