Times are tougher than ever for teens, and they didn’t have it easy prior to the current COVID-19 crisis. With the ongoing fear of school shootings, a tense political climate, and intense social media pressures, it is no question that this population is suffering heightened anxiety on a regular basis. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), an estimated 31.9% of adolescents (aged 13-18) in the US have an anxiety disorder (classified by the DSM-V) (NIMH, 2017).
Many of my teen clients struggle with the same question about their anxious moments: “How do I make them stop?”
There is no easy or quick fix to managing anxiety. And that is the key word—manage. Often clients believe that if they seek professional help, like therapy, they can be cured of this ailment. In reality, anxiety is often a healthy and helpful alarm system intended to keep us safe, and ridding yourself of it (if that were possible) would put you in harm’s way. When it is overactive, however, it can interfere with just about everything. The good news is that there are exercises to “train” an anxious brain to be cool and calm.
The key is to learn what triggers anxiety, and how to manage it. For most teens right now, it may be quieting the news alerts on devices, as constant updates during uncertain times can further exacerbate rumination, or catastrophizing (an example of a cognitive distortion that individuals with heightened levels of anxiety experience constantly). I like to go through these in session with teens, and identify which ones they are most susceptible to.
There are also great resources online, like at www.adaa.org, where teens can read blogs, listen to podcasts, or watch webinars on managing anxiety, the most recent being “Tips for Managing Coronavirus Anxiety” by a team of mental health experts.
Since teens have more time at home than usual, books and workbooks are excellent tools to use between sessions or during pauses in treatment. The latest in teen anxiety self-help books by New Harbinger Publications is one I coauthored with a team of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) therapists that draws on powerful neuroscience to rewire an anxious brain for good. You’ll also find guided meditations for overcoming worry in the moment; strategies to help you balance emotions; and tips for dealing with uncertainty, perfectionism, and procrastination. Most importantly, readers will discover that they are stronger than their anxiety, and that they can take control of their fears and live their best life. Our book, Rewire Your Anxious Brain for Teens can be found here.
It is always recommended to seek professional help if you think you or someone you love is struggling with an anxiety disorder. ADAA has an online tool that will help you find a therapist offering virtual sessions. Here are some screening tools* that may help you determine if seeking treatment is right for you.
*These tools are not diagnostic. The goal is for the results to be shared with your doctor to inform further conversations about diagnosis and treatment.
Michelle Lozano, LMFT, is a marriage and family therapist at Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, with placement at John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital at Cook County in Chicago, IL. Lozano belongs to the ADAA, and the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. She has guest lectured at Loyola University Chicago, as well as The Graduate School at Northwestern University, on working with the patient’s family system in therapy. Lozano provides family and group therapy to children and adolescents with chronic medical conditions in an effort to improve their emotional well-being and overall health. She is particularly interested in providing patients with the education and tools to become their own mental health coach to live more fulfilling lives.