Like depression in teens, teenage anxiety is a pretty common experience for adolescents. Whether it’s the jitters when it’s time to get in front of the class to present a report or the butterflies that show up when talking to that cute gal or guy in the lunchroom, it’s a pretty universal experience. But it’s not this simple for some teenagers.
Anxiety can be debilitating and actually lead to a very real depression. I remember the first time I asked a girl out in the 6th grade. I was absolutely terrified! I’d call and hang up before it would even ring (we didn’t have caller id or cell phones back then), then try again, and hang up. Asking her out in person was out of the question! When I finally had the nerve to stay on the phone, my heart started pounding out of my chest, I was sweating, my breathing was rapid and my voice trembling. I thought this was what ALL guys went through . . . all of the adults kept telling me, “Everybody gets nervous! You’ll be fine! Just do it, it’s easier if you just jump in.” Well intended words, but they were extremely confusing for me since nothing felt normal.
What I was suffering from was intense social anxiety, and while everybody did get nervous when asking somebody out, not everybody had dealt with the intensity that I did. Adults are correct to not coddle a tween or teen dealing with anxiety. But what does need to happen is taking them seriously and not minimizing their experience. It may be normal anxiety, but if it’s not, taking the time to listen to them will help a great deal, and it will help you know what to do. In either case, you’ll need to teach them self-soothing skills that we’ll discuss below.
Listen. Validate. Teach
The rule-of-thumb when dealing with teenagers is to avoid lecturing them. Instead, listen to them and be curious about their experiences, even if you think they are being dramatic. Being a bit dramatic is a part of them learning the full spectrum of their emotional and intellectual experience. Reflect back to them what you are hearing them express . . . you can certainly relate to them by sharing some nerve-wracking experiences from your life. Let them know that it’s ok to feel nervous even if it doesn’t feel so ok (that’s the validating piece). Ask them to rate the intensity. If it’s a 12 on a scale from 1 to 10, then it may be more than normal teen angst. Finally, ask them what they have tried to do to help, and praise their efforts (so long as they don’t say “getting stoned and drunk” etc.). Perhaps ask what they see other people doing to manage their nerves. Share with them what has worked for you, and don’t worry if they roll their eyes and say, “that’ll never work for me,” that’s normal teenage obstinance; you’ve planted the seed.
- Meditate, Breathe – Smooth, relaxed belly breathing. Inhale and let the belly fall out, inhale and pull belly back in. Read more specifics on meditation and proper breathing here
- Use aromatherapy – Smells like lavender and vanilla are well known to facilitate relaxation. There is legitimate neuroscience behind this. It may or may not completely alleviate the anxiety, but it will help take the edge off
- Do something active – Engaging in physical exercise not only gets healthy chemicals flowing that can offset anxiety, but it also forces them to focus on something other than the cause of the anxiety. . .in other words, it distracts from it
- Do something creative – Like activity, being creative engages other parts of the brain and helps relieve anxiety through the distraction principle. Create art, create music, they may decide to show how they feel through art, they may decide to show how they’d like to feel through art. Anything that helps is fine
- Journal – Cathartic writing is powerful. It is a specific example of doing something creative. Getting thoughts onto paper can have the effect of externalizing it in a way the lessens the load
- Elevate legs – Yes, this is the same thing that we do to treat shock if somebody is injured. It helps keep the blood at the core organs, which has a calming effect. I wouldn’t do this one in the middle of class or on a date, though!
- Practice – If the anxiety is related to performing in front of people, encourage them to practice in front of family and/or friends. Repetition helps engage muscle memory which lightens the load when it comes time for the task itself
- Talk to somebody – Sometimes, talking to a friend, teacher, scout leader, mentor, counselor etc. can be extremely helpful. Most people have dealt with some level of anxiety and just knowing that they are not alone can be useful. Remember, for purposes of this article, we are talking about more intense anxiety, which may require a bit more help
- Talk to a doctor – For severe anxiety, there are meds and nutritional changes that may help relieve the symptoms
- Stress Management – Read the post on Stress Management. These techniques also help anxiety