Most people want to get rid of their anxiety, and teens are no exception: “If I didn’t feel worried and scared, there’s so much I’d do.” Rather than trying to dispute or eliminate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings as a prerequisite to reaching our goals, it can be helpful to instead reframe anxiety as a source of important information about who we are and what matters to us.
Anxiety shows up precisely because what we’re attempting to do matters. So many things can and do matter to teens: friendships, grades, family relations, physical appearance, the future. So many things to be anxious about.
Consider Amelia, a bright and hardworking high school senior.
Therapist: You mentioned last time that you were having a lot of worries about school.
Amelia: Yeah, I’m so afraid of messing up my grades and not getting into a good college. My parents would be really disappointed, and my future would be ruined. (laughs) That sounds kind of dramatic when I say it out loud.
Therapist: That’s sounds really stressful. What happens, what do you do, when those anxious thoughts and feelings show up?
Amelia: I freeze up. I can’t study. I end up getting on my phone and looking at dumb cat videos and stuff just to get away from the pressure. But then I get further behind and the anxiety is even worse.
Therapist: Well, have you tried not caring about your grades or what your parents think, or your future?
Amelia: What? (laughs) Are you serious? Well, I suppose then I wouldn’t worry about any of it. But I’m not sure I could even do that. All that stuff matters to me.
Therapist: Exactly. All that stuff matters to you. You care about grades and family and the future. And anything we care about makes us vulnerable to worry and fear. No caring, no worrying. If you thought of anxiety that way, as evidence that something really important is at stake right now—as not a problem but just part of the deal—what difference would that make for how you respond in those situations?
Amelia: I’m not sure. I think I’d be less anxious about the anxiety (laughs) and maybe just refocus on studying, keep heading in the right direction.
Therapist: Well, let’s try that. In the coming week, keep that idea in mind: my anxiety is proof that this situation is important to me and I need to lean into it and do what would work for me right here, right now, with an eye on my goals.
Christopher McCurry, PhD, is a clinical child psychologist in private practice specializing in the treatment of childhood anxiety. He is clinical assistant professor in the departments of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Washington in Seattle, WA.