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Anxiety in Teens

Roughly 40 million Americans live with anxiety as a certifiable mental illness. And without proper treatment, thousands turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope. If your child is among them, they can benefit from rehab.

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8 min read

What Are Anxiety Disorders?

Anxiety disorders describe a group of mental issues that cause people to be “on edge” and high-strung, to the point where it interferes with their day-to-day operations. They’re the most common form of mental illness in the United States, affecting 18% of the population. Lagging behind this are mood orders like depression (9.5%), personality disorders (9%) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD (4%).

Although anxiety disorders are considered highly treatable, only one-third of victims receive treatment.

Anxiety can cause a lingering sense of dread, especially when paired with other symptoms that can impede productivity and the ability to be happy. But because these symptoms are not always apparent to others (or even the person suffering), they may fly under the radar until they cause an outburst of some kind. People with anxiety disorders are 6 times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than everyone else.

How Many Teens Struggle with Anxiety?

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An adult case of anxiety disorder can begin in the teenage years or even earlier. Due to the tumultuous nature of adolescent life (school, puberty, etc.), symptoms of anxiety might appear to parents and teachers as commonplace. And a struggling teen may be too afraid to speak up and reach out for help.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 25% of kids aged 13–18 have a diagnosable anxiety disorder at some point in their life, and 6% of these meet the criteria for a severe case. Female teens are more like than males to develop anxiety (30% of females vs. 20% of males), and white teens are more at-risk than kids of other backgrounds.

Types of Anxiety

The word “anxiety” may be misleading, as the emotion itself is something we all feel — before major deadlines, job interviews, first dates and the like. But anxiety disorders fall into separate categories, each with a unique set of risks and symptoms.

The main types of anxiety disorders are:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – Persistent, excessive and unrealistic worry about everyday things.
  • Panic Disorder – Spontaneous and unpredictable intense panic attacks, paired with the ongoing fear of the next episode.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder -The overwhelming fear of being judged and scrutinized, preventing victims from engaging in social or performance activities.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – Constant, intrusive thoughts that cause repeated and ritualistic behaviors and routines (i.e. washing hands, opening and closing doors, etc.).
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – Debilitating depression, anxiety or mental blockages following one’s experience in a traumatic event, such a personal attack, natural disaster or war.
  • Phobia – Unreasonable and severe fear in the anticipation or presence of specific objects or situations (i.e. spiders, heights, etc.).

Each type of anxiety disorder affects millions in the U.S., both young and old alike.

Causes of Anxiety

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The causes of anxiety disorders vary from case to case. Genetics, brain chemistry, personality and environment can each contribute to an individual’s disorder. One study revealed that babies who are highly reactive to surroundings and stimuli are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder later in their life. This overreactivity can be exacerbated by a tumultuous home life, stressful school experiences or traumatic life events.

Some common factors that increase the risk of anxiety include:

  • Depression
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Substance use
  • Stress
  • “Type A” personality
  • Trauma

It’s difficult to predict what specific causes might lead to a teenager’s anxiety problem. But if the symptoms are picked up early, you and your teen can reduce the impact and work together to keep the condition under control.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

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While each individual’s anxiety disorder is unique and should be approached as so, they tend to share certain signs and symptoms. Observing these things in your teen might clue you in on a potential problem that requires help from a professional.

The symptoms tend to cluster around excessive, irrational fear and dread. This might be episodic and appear in a big way on spread-out occasions, or appear as a constant, debilitating trait in your teen, keeping them from seeing their potential or interacting with their peers in the expected ways. Even if they realize their anxiety is more intense than their circumstances warrant, they may not be able to shake their concerns. They can feel powerless to these feelings, even with an outpouring of love and support from friends and family. If you notice this level of unease in your teen — despite your family’s best efforts — they may have a diagnosable anxiety disorder.

Physical symptoms related to this illness can include:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Breathing problems
  • Sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches or muscle tension
  • Trembling
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Nausea

Try not to jump to conclusions if you notice your teen is anxious from time to time. But keep the possibility of a disorder in mind if the symptoms grow more consistent and apparent. Speak with your teen’s physician if you’re concerned there might be a problem.

Does Anxiety Lead to Substance Abuse?

If a teen with anxiety problems doesn’t get the help they need — 80% of these teens never do — the idea of drugs or alcohol can become an appealing way to medicate. Even teens who do get help have a higher likelihood of using these substances than their peers, and some will develop an addiction to the medications a doctor might prescribe.

Marijuana and alcohol are the most common substances used by anxious teens. These drugs can have a calming effect, though they often lead to dependence (wherein a teen can’t function without it) and the many side effects that develop as a result. The odds of alcohol dependence is 2–3 times more likely in people with an anxiety disorder. And in one study of teens with a substance problem, researchers found that those with an anxiety disorder were “significantly more likely” to smoke pot, starting at an average age of 10.6 — 2.2 years earlier than the other kids.

Teens with anxiety disorders also regularly turn to central nervous system (CNS) depressants: pills like Xanax, Valium and the sleep-aid Ambien. These are commonly prescribed by doctors for patients with anxiety or panic disorders, but have become so popular among young people that many drug dealers now sell them around campus. Potent prescription drugs like these can also lead to addiction and harmful side effects, and teens looking to self-medicate may easily overlook the potential risks in order to suppress their anxiety.

75% of patients with a substance dependency and co-existing anxiety disorder report having the disorder first. This majority of people likely adopts the substance habit as a way to cope with or reduce the symptoms of their anxiety, but unfortunately develop an entirely new problem, while the old one lives on.

What Are Other Effects of Teen Anxiety?

Teenagers with anxiety disorders can suffer in several ways, besides the obvious. Balancing a normal life with this illness is difficult enough. Depending on the severity of their problem and their other circumstances, the effects of anxiety can be felt in nearly every aspect of life.

These effects can include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Trouble making friends
  • Fear of romantic relationships
  • Poor performance in school
  • Missing social obligations
  • Issues with finding or keeping jobs
  • Anxiety into adulthood
  • Harmful substance habits

Considering that millions of teens struggle with anxiety disorders, and only 1 in 5 get help, it’s vital that parents keep an eye out for these problems. When your teen has trouble dealing with the world, you might be the only one they can truly confide in, and who can get them the attention their problem demands.

Does My Child Need Rehab?

If you have been noticing signs of anxiety or substance abuse in your child, speak with your family doctor about the possibility of a substance abuse or anxiety disorder. Especially when combined with addiction, anxiety can seriously cripple your teenager’s future. If you’re not sure whether your child is struggling with a diagnosable anxiety issue or just normal adolescent stuff, consult a professional — don’t wait around to see if the problems that you’ve been noticing will resolve themselves.

Most teens with an anxiety disorder will benefit from professional care. Especially when addiction is present, rehab is sometimes the only option for bringing your child back to health. Combined with medication and complementary treatments, rehab can help your teen get their substance abuse disorder and co-occurring illness under control before it leads to additional problems.

If you’re not sure where to start, give us at TeenRehabCenter.org a call. We offer free guidance to parents whose children are suffering from addiction and co-occurring mental illnesses. We can help you identify signs of these disorders, and take appropriate action to get your teen back on track. Our ultimate goal is to help your teen overcome the problem, so they can return to living a normal, happy life. The earlier you catch addiction, the more likely it will be that your child can fully recover. Don’t wait to find the help that your child needs.

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