Almost every adolescent experiences anxiety at some time during their teenage years, says UW Medicine psychiatrist Lauren Boydston, M.D. who practices at Seattle Children's Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Clinic. "There’s lots to be anxious about: school, family relationships, friendships and the changing world around them. In fact, one national survey found anxiety to be the most most common mental disorder among teens aged 13 to 18, affecting one in three girls and one in four boys. Unfortunately, despite the fact there is effective treatment, only about one in five adolescents with anxiety who need treatment get it.”
Three types of anxiety
Anxiety comes in different forms, three common diagnoses in adolescence are social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder and separation anxiety disorder.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) may cause teens anxiety about a variety of things, such as succeeding in school, their social life, bad things happening to themsleves or loved ones or even world events over which they have no control. GAD can be pervasive, and can severely affect an adolescent's ability to function.
Social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, involves anxiety caused by social or performance situations. Teens with social phobia often fear they will embarrasses themselves or be judged by others. Such fears can hamper their ability to successfully participate in school, extracurricular activities and social interactions.
Separation anxiety disorder occurs in adolescents who become anxious at the thought of being separated from home, their parents or other people to whom they feel close. Since an important task in adolescence is to become more independent, separation anxiety can have a significant impact on a teen's development.
What are symptoms of anxiety?
Signs that anxiety is becoming a problem for an adolescent include missed school, social isolation, irritability and unexplained physical complaints. Teens with untreated anxiety often have difficulty doing well in school, making and keeping friends and building self-esteem. Many anxious teens have more than one mental health problem — for example, they are frequently depressed — so getting evaluated and treated is extremely important.
Making an appointment with a primary health care provider is a good place to start. He or she can rule out any physical causes of your teen's symptoms, assess the severity and amount of impairment caused by symptoms and make recommendations for treatment. If necessary, he or she can refer patients to a specialist, such as a child and adolescent psychiatrist or psychologist.
Treating anxiety in teens
If symptoms are mild, treatment usually begins with psychotherapy. This typically includes some combination of education about anxiety as well as individual, family and group therapy. There are multiple types of therapy that can be helpful. Research suggests one in particular--cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on helping the teen develop coping skills and strategies to master anxiety, is effective.
Medication tends to be used when psychotherapy alone is not enough to significantly improve symptoms; when the anxiety itself interferes with therapy; when the teen has other conditions, such as depression; or when the symptoms of anxiety are more severe. First-line medications for adolescent anxiety are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, SSRIs, which are also commonly used to treat depression.
Most teens with anxiety do well with treatment. Anxiety can recur and is associated with the risk of other mental health problems, such as depression and substance abuse. Early recognition and treatment of anxiety not only can help adolescents succeed in and enjoy their teen years, it may also reduce their risk of developing mental health problems as adults.
To make an appointment with a primary care physician, call 855-520-5151.