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Teens, Brains & Anxiety

Monday, February 5th, 2024

by Melanie VanderPol-Bailey, MSW, CSW-PIP


Over the past decade there has been a noticeable increase in the prevalence of anxiety disorders among adolescents.  General anxiety, panic attacks and social anxiety are conditions that can significantly impact a person’s daily life.  From academic stress, peer relationships, navigating social media and managing busy schedules many teens are doing their best to stay afloat.  Parents, caregivers and educators who support with compassion, understanding and reasonable expectations can be a beacon of light in the stormy seas of adolescence.

Let’s explore how anxious thoughts occur.  Danger!  Anxiety can occur because our brain thinks it has detected danger.  The important word here is thinks.  Our brains are smart but all thoughts certainly are not true.  Our brains were created to protect us, so when our brains think we are in danger they automatically begin to do things that are meant to keep us safe and alive.  Making our hearts beat faster and breathing harder are a few examples of this. Anxiety happens in anticipation of something (often bad) happening.  The bad thing hasn’t happened yet (and good news here is it may not), however our brains just think it will or could happen.  At times our anxiety can be a helpful tool.  Remember our protective brains want to help us, they want us to prepare and stay safe.  This can motivate us to study, for example, if there is a big test or a project due.  Anxiety can help us think to turn off the cruise control if we have worry that the roads might be slick.  Parents often carry a moderate season of anxiety during these Adolescent years as well.  We want our teenagers safe and to avoid all of the dangers that we fear.  We also know that the decision-making part of the adolescent brain is still developing, which doesn’t always help our brains, but is a reminder to give grace as our children learn and grow.

Has anyone told you to just “stop worrying” about something?  Knowing what we know about our protective brain this is an impossible ask.  Remember, we have brains that think.  Instead of pushing it away, we can teach ourselves and others how to manage and live with anxious thoughts as they arise.  Here are a few helpful tools in coping with anxiety:

Listen, Accept and Encourage:  When we began advising instead of listening, we can quickly lose connection with the other.  Listening without fixing is a powerful tool.  Accept that a person’s fears are real to them and sit in the feeling with them for a moment. Telling them they are over reacting is not helpful.  Encourage tolerating the hard versus avoiding things that need to be done.  Fears can grow when we try to avoid hard things.

Patience and Perspective:  Be patient and kind, usually the person who is struggling is already being hard enough on themselves.  Empathy occurs when we can take the perspective of another.  Help them clarify what can be controlled and what cannot. 

Prayer and Mindfulness:  Belief in a Higher Power means we are never truly alone, and this truth can be a powerful calm to any storm.  Prayer can be a calming tool when fears are loud.  A bit of mindfulness can invite our brains back to the present moment and allow for us to gain some control of our busy brains. 

Settling our bodies:  Our bodies often respond to anxious thoughts.  Figuring out where your body feels the stressors is the first step in responding to that anxious part.  Taking slow deep breaths can clear our heads and calm our bodies. Going for a walk can create a repetitive rhythmic movement that has a calming effect. Identify where you feel anxiety so you can begin to attend to it. 

When anxieties become excessive and occur more days than not for a period of time, it can be beneficial to seek professional help. Restlessness, feeling keyed up or on edge, being easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating or mind going blank, irritability, muscle tension and sleep disturbances are all symptoms of Anxiety Disorder.  You don’t have to go it alone.  At River Counseling Services in Platte, Sioux Falls Psychological Services, and Stronghold Counseling Services in Sioux Falls and in Yankton we will meet you where you are, offering hope. That is our mission. You may schedule an appointment at the Platte office at 605-337-3444 or meet with one of our Sioux Falls or Yankton based therapists from your computer, smartphone, or in person at any of our clinics. To schedule an appointment, please call 605-334-2696.