Why Teens Have More Anxiety…and How to Help
Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in America, and it affects nearly 1 in 3 teens between the ages of 13 and 18. The number of young people experiencing anxiety is on the rise, with a 20% jump in anxiety disorders in kids and teens seen from 2007-2012. What’s the problem?
Several factors are contributing to the increasing anxiety among teens, including the following:
1. Spending more time on social media
Teens report using the internet on an “almost constant” basis, according to statistics from Pew Research Center. And Generation Z (16-20-year-olds) logs over 4 hours a day online on their mobile phones. Much of that time is spent on social media sites like Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook. A growing number of studies have shown a connection between time spent on social media and feelings of anxiety and depression.
Social media outlets are masterful at creating shame as they invite nonstop comparisons to other people who may or may not even be real. Shame is a painful emotion that results from negatively comparing yourself to others or not living up to your own standards. The near-constant flood of negative feelings can generate worry and anxiety about not measuring up.
How to help: Limit social media time. In a study of over a million teens since 1991, researchers found that when they limited social media, spent time with their friends in person, exercised, played sports, attended religious services, read, and even did homework, they were happier than those who spent time on the internet, playing computer games, doing social media, texting, using video chat, or watching TV.
2. Spending less time in face-to-face interactions
As teens spend more and more time on social media, they are spending less time with in-person connections. And when anxiety enters the picture, teens may be even more likely to isolate themselves from social situations in favor of scrolling through their social media feeds, which creates a negative, looping cycle.
The problem is that social media doesn’t provide the same psychological or physiological benefits as socializing face-to-face. Human bonding—eye contact, hugs, holding hands—causes the brain to release the feel-good neurotransmitter oxytocin. Instead, research shows a clear, causal link between Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram and depression and loneliness, especially in teenage girls.
How to help: Encourage your teen to spend more in-person time with friends, family, and others. Consider volunteering with your teen at a charity where you can both interact with others.
3. Increased pressure to perform
AP classes, after-school activities, college applications—the high expectations placed on teens (and that teens place on themselves) are also fueling the rise in anxiety. Teens today can be under tremendous pressure to achieve, and a growing number of them say they feel overwhelmed by everything they need to accomplish.
How to help: Be aware of the expectations you’re placing on your teen and try to encourage realistic goals. Allow your teen time to relax rather than overscheduling their time. When you give positive reinforcement to your teen, don’t focus solely on their accomplishments. Let them know what you appreciate about them as a person.
4. An increasingly frightening society
Mass shootings on school campuses and the threat of terrorist attacks are adding to the sense of anxiety so many teens are experiencing. Just seeing news coverage of these events can cause intense fear and contribute to anxiety or post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). Places where teens used to feel safe—school, movie theaters, outdoor concerts—may now be where they feel apprehension and dread.
How to help: Reduce exposure to the negative news cycles on television and online. Talk to your teen about being aware of their surroundings and noticing where exits are located so they can have some sense of control in case a situation arises. In addition, teach them stress-management techniques to soothe anxiety when it hits.
5. Poor eating habits
Food is a drug. It has powerful effects on our moods, emotions, and behavior. Teens have notoriously bad eating habits—think fast food, pizza, soda, ice cream, coffee—that can increase symptoms of nervousness. Adolescents may also be prone to skipping meals, which can promote or exacerbate feelings of anxiety.
In addition, consuming foods—such as sugar, MSG, gluten, soy, corn, and dairy—that are potential allergens may create a metabolic disorder that can lead to symptoms of anxiety, agitation, irritability, depression, and more. Considering these are found in the vast majority of processed foods, it can be hard to avoid them. And teens may not make the connection between what they’re eating and the way they’re feeling.
How to help: Feed your teen a healthy diet of small amounts of high-quality protein, fatty fish that is rich in mood-boosting omega-3 fatty acids, and pesticide-free vegetables and fruits, and minimize refined carbohydrates and junk food. You may also want to consider an elimination diet—essentially a diet free of dairy, gluten, corn, sugar, and soy for one month. Then add foods back one by one to see how they affect anxiety levels.
6. Abnormal activity in the teenage brain
Brain imaging studies show that teens with anxiety tend to have too much activity in a region of the brain called the basal ganglia. This area is involved in setting a person’s anxiety level. When there is too much activity in this area, it is associated with anxiety, nervousness, panic attacks, physical sensations of anxiety (such as a pounding heart, shortness of breath, and racing thoughts), a tendency to predict the worst, conflict avoidance, muscle tension, headaches, stomachaches, tremors, twitches, and more.
How to help: Getting a functional brain scan using SPECT technology can help identify brain patterns associated with anxiety and can also reveal any co-occurring conditions, such as depression. Imaging studies have found 7 types of anxiety and depression and knowing your teen’s type can help find a more targeted treatment plan.
Amen Clinics has helped thousands of teens overcome anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, and PTSD. We use brain SPECT imaging to help identify which type of anxiety teens have and to help find the least toxic, most effective personalized solutions as part of a brain-body approach to healing.
If your teen’s anxiety is affecting their school, home life, or relationships, speak with a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or schedule a visit online.