Anxiety is a normal part of the adolescent and teen years as these are some of the most stressful times in a person’s life. Some anxiety is a normal reaction to stressful situations. It can help teens deal with a tricky situation, study harder for an exam, and maintain focus on an important task. For most individuals, anxiety is often a harmless phase that lasts for a while and dissipates on its own. However, there are a variety of anxiety disorders that can impact the lives of children, leading them to experience fear, shyness, and nervousness, and can cause them to avoid certain activities and places.
Anxiety disorders, one of the most common types of mental health concerns experienced by all ages, are mental health disorders that include extreme amounts of unremitting fear, nervousness, dread, or worry. When anxiety becomes an excessive, irrational dread, it has become a disabling yet treatable mental health condition. The most common forms of adolescent anxiety disorders include:
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by extreme worry about a variety of events – including past, present, and future events. Children and teens with GAD worry about a lot of issues, including past conversations or behaviors, upcoming events, school, family problems, their health, competences in academics or sports, and world events. Many teens with GAD find that they have difficulty controlling their extreme amounts of worry and that the anxiety interferes with their daily life. GAD occurs more days than not for periods of six months or longer.
Panic disorder leads to recurrent panic attacks and a persistent anxiety that an attack may lead to more panic attacks or physical or psychological harm. Teens who have panic disorder may avoid going out and engaging in activities out of fear an attack may occur. Panic attacks include feelings of intense fear and unease composed of physical symptoms and fearful thoughts. Untreated, this can lead to agoraphobia.
Separation anxiety can be caused by unwillingness to separate from major attachment figures or from home. Threat of having to separate from caregivers leads to anxiety. While separation anxiety can be seen mostly in children, it can also be experienced by teens as well.
Social phobia is the intense fear of embarrassment or humiliation in social situations, which may lead to shyness and a fear of doing or saying something in front of others that may promote embarrassment. This may include attending parties, speaking with figures in authority, or fears of speaking in public.
Specific phobias: Teens may experience specific phobias— intense, irrational fears of specific things and situations. Teens may not realize that their fears of such objects are unreasonable. Exposure to the feared object or situation leads to extreme distress.
A national survey discovered that approximately 8% of adolescents (or one in eight children) between the ages of 13 and 18 have an anxiety disorder; typical symptoms appear around age 6. Of these teens with anxiety disorders, only about 18% received the mental health care needed to make a recovery.
Causes and Risk Factors for Adolescent Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders in the teen years are thought to be the result of a number of factors working together. Some of the most common causes and risk factors for adolescent anxiety disorders may include:
Genetic: Adolescents who have a first-degree relative who has an anxiety disorder are at greater risk for developing anxiety disorders than those who do not have a similar history.
Physical: Neuroimaging studies showed that teens with anxiety disorders have atypical activity in certain areas of the brain when compared with their peers.
Environmental: Extremely stressful events, such as the death of a loved one, sudden move to a new area, or the divorce of parents, can bring about anxiety disorders. Additionally, when children grow up in a home where others are fearful, it can lead them to believe the world is a dangerous place. Other children who grow up in a dangerous home may also become fearful.
- Being female
- Traumatic events during childhood years
- Stress due to chronic illness of a teen or his or her parent
- Personalities that are prone to worrying
- Usage of drugs or alcohol
Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorder in Teens
The symptoms of anxiety disorders in adolescents will vary according to length of illness, presence of support system, and type of anxiety disorder. Symptoms of a teen anxiety disorder may come on gradually and linger, or they may come about suddenly. Typical symptoms of each disorder include:
Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder:
- Feeling keyed-up or on edge
- Easily fatigued
- Difficulties concentrating
- Muscle tension
- Sleep disturbances
Symptoms of Panic Disorder:
- Chest pain
- Choking feelings
- Difficulties breathing
- Sweating and trembling
- GI distress
- Body temperature changes, leading to sweating and trembling
- Numbness and tingling in arms and legs
- Fear of dying
- Fear of going crazy
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety:
- Excessive worry about potential harm toward the teen
- Worry about primary caregivers
- Avoidance of activities that separate the adolescent from caregivers
- Nausea and vomiting
Symptoms of Social Phobia:
- Ongoing fear of situations in which a teen is exposed to unfamiliar people
- Fear of situations in which a child may come under scrutiny of others
- Avoidance and fear of school-related events
- Substantial interference with most social activities
Symptoms of Specific Phobias:
- Avoidance and distress of the feared objected leads to major disruption in the child’s routine
- Difficulties in school or family functioning
- Unstable social relations
- Sweaty palms
Effects of Anxiety Disorders
While anxiety disorders in adolescents can be managed through a variety of therapeutic approaches, the long-term consequences of untreated anxiety disorders can lead to significant impairment in daily life. The most common effects of anxiety disorders in teens and adolescents include:
- Poor performance in school
- Behavioral problems
- Dropping out of school
- Poor self-worth and low self-esteem
- Committing petty crimes
- Teen pregnancy
- Missing out on social engagements
- Substance use and abuse
- Anxiety disorders that persist well into adulthood
Anxiety disorders often co-occur with other mental health disorders in teenagers. The most common co-occurring disorders include:
- Depressive disorders
- Eating disorders
- Substance use and abuse