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HealthSheets™

When Your Teen Has an Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety is a normal part of life. This feeling of worry alerts us to threats and gets us to take action. But for some teens, anxiety can get so bad it causes problems in daily life. The good news is that anxiety can be treated to help relieve symptoms and help your teen feel better. This sheet gives you more information about anxiety and how to get your child help so he or she feels better.

Young girl clutching her book looking anxious.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is like an alarm bell in your brain. When you're threatened, the alarm goes off and tells your body to protect you. People feel anxious when they are in danger and need to get to safety. The need to succeed also causes anxiety. Teens may feel anxious doing schoolwork or learning to drive, for example. In many cases, feeling anxiety is perfectly normal.

What are the signs and symptoms of an anxiety disorder?

With an anxiety disorder, the body responds as if it were in danger. But the response is inappropriate. Sometimes the anxiety is way out of proportion to the threat that triggers it. Other times, anxiety occurs even when there is no clear threat or danger. An anxiety disorder often disrupts the teen's work, school, and relationships. Below are some common symptoms of an anxiety disorder.

  • Physical symptoms such as:

    • Frequent headaches or dizziness

    • Stomach problems

    • Sweating or shakiness

    • Trouble sleeping

    • Muscle tension

    • Startling easily

  • Constant fear for personal safety or safety of friends and family

  • Clingy behavior

  • Problems focusing or relaxing

  • Irritability

  • Critical, self-conscious thoughts about what others may be thinking

  • Not wanting to attend parties or other social events

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

OCD is a type of anxiety disorder. Its symptoms are slightly different from other anxiety disorders. Someone with OCD has constant, intrusive fears (obsessions). Examples include relentless fears about germs or worry about leaving the door unlocked or the stove on. Certain behaviors (compulsions) are done to help relieve the fear and anxiety. These include washing hands over and over or checking a lock or stove constantly. If your teen shows any of the following signs, see a healthcare provider:

  • Excessive handwashing

  • Checking things over and over, like lights or locks

  • The overwhelming need to do certain tasks in a certain order or have items arranged or organized in a certain way. If this routine gets altered, your teen gets very upset or angry.

Panic disorder

  • Panic disorder is another type of anxiety disorder. Teens with panic disorder have panic attacks. These are sudden and repeated episodes of intense fear along with physical symptoms such as chest pain, a pounding heartbeat, dizziness, and problems breathing. The attacks strike out of the blue with little or no warning.

  • During panic attacks, teens may feel like they are being smothered. They may feel a sense of unreality or of impending doom. And they often feel like they’re about to lose control.

  • Often teens will avoid any place where they’ve had an attack out of fear of having another one.

  • In some cases, people who have had panic attacks become so afraid of having another attack that they stop leaving their homes. This condition is called agoraphobia.

  • If your teen shows any signs of panic disorder, see a healthcare provider right away for evaluation and treatment.

What's the next step?

Left untreated, an anxiety disorder can affect the quality of your child's life. This includes school work, after-school activities, and relationships. That's why it's important to seek help right away if you think your child may have an anxiety disorder. There is no specific test for anxiety disorders. But your child's healthcare provider will ask questions. And the provider may want to do tests to rule out other problems.

Treating anxiety disorders

Anxiety is often treated with therapy, medicines, or a combination of the two.

Therapy 

Therapy (also called counseling) is a very helpful treatment for anxiety. When done by a trained professional, therapy helps the teen face and learn to manage anxiety.

Medicines

Medicines can help manage symptoms. One or more medicines may be prescribed to treat anxiety disorder.

  • Anti-anxiety medicines relieve symptoms and help the teen relax. These medicines may be taken on a regular schedule. Or they may be taken only when needed. Follow the healthcare provider's instructions.

  • Antidepressant medicines are often used to treat anxiety. They help balance brain chemicals. They can be used even if your child isn't depressed. These medicines are taken on a schedule. They take a few weeks to start working.

Medicines can be very helpful. But finding the best medicine for your child may take time. If medicines are prescribed, follow instructions carefully. Let the healthcare provider know how your child is doing on the medicine. Tell the provider if you see any changes. Never stop your child's medicine without talking to the healthcare provider first. And never give your child herbal remedies or other medicines along with these medicines. Always check with your pharmacist before using any over-the-counter medicines, such as those used for colds or the flu.

Other things that can help

Recovery from any illness takes time. Getting over an anxiety disorder is no different. While your child is recovering, here are things that can help him or her feel better:

  • Be understanding of your child. Your child's behavior may be trying at times. But he or she is just trying to cope. Your support can make a huge difference.

  • Help your child to talk about his or her worries and fears. Being able to talk about them and hear reassurance can help your child learn to cope.

  • Have your child exercise regularly. Exercise has been shown to help relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Call the healthcare provider if your child:

  • Has side effects from a medicine

  • Has symptoms that get worse

  • Becomes very aggressive or angry

  • Shows signs or talks of hurting himself or herself (see below)

Suicide is a medical emergency

Anxiety and depression can cause your child to feel helpless or hopeless. Thoughts may become so negative that suicide can seem like the only option. If you are concerned that your child may be thinking about hurting himself or herself, ask your child about it. Asking about suicide does NOT lead to suicide.

Call 911

If your child talks about suicide, act right away! If the threat is immediate (your child has a plan and the means to carry it out), call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Don’t leave your child alone. 

Seek help

If the threat isn't immediate, call your child's healthcare provider or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) right away. It is open 24 hours a day, every day. They speak English and Spanish. Or visit the lifeline’s website at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. This resource provides immediate crisis intervention and information on local resources. It is free and confidential.

Resources

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255)

    www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

  • National Institute of Mental Health

    www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml

  • American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

    www.aacap.org

© 2000-2017 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.