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The Great Divide: Seeing the Difference between Anxiety and Stress in Teens

Studies conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health show about 25% of teenagers have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is categorized as having feelings of tension or worry that affect mental and physical changes. Anxiety disorders can cause extreme reactions to stressful situations. Stress, on the other hand, is a feeling of nervousness about situations, such as test taking or public speaking. The American Psychological Association collected data about stress in teens and found the number of teens experiencing stress was higher than adults.

How can parents determine if their teens are stressed or are experiencing an anxiety disorder? Although there are many similarities between the two, several differences are noted to help parents determine if their teen needs help.

Stress in Teens

Stress affects teens far differently than adults. During the APA Stress in America Survey, teens rated their stress level at 5.8 out of a 10-point scale. There are many factors that contribute to stress in teens. Technology is found to play a contributing role in stress levels. Teens are bombarded with social media, news and other forms of technology that affects their sleep. Teens can spend hours on social media which can keep their brain awake. It can also affect them mentally because they are stressing about other people’s “perfect” lives.

Teens have many more stressors that can contribute to stress levels. Teens experience academic stress when met with pressures from parents and teachers. They can also worry about keeping up with their classmates and feel overwhelmed with the amount of classwork. Teens also have another stressor involved with school that many parents don’t even think about: school shootings and violence. In 2018, the number of school shootings and violent school events have escalated to the point that it is changing government policy. Teens stress that these events will find their way into their schools as well.

The family dynamic can cause stress in teens. Anything that can impact the family can affect the teen. Teens struggle with unrealistic expectations, martial problems, family illness, and financial stress. Typically, parent’s stress will trickle down to teens if not managed correctly. Teens may not be directly involved with the decisions regarding some of these issues, but they can affect a teen’s stress levels.

stress in teens
Anxiety in Teens

Anxiety and stress in teens can experience overlap. Stressors, such as the ones mentioned above, can overwhelm a teen to the point they begin to get irrationally anxious over them. For many teens, events such as public speaking, exams, and competitions can cause feelings of stress and apprehension. However, when a teen experiences feelings that are beyond sweating or rapid heartbeat, they are experiencing anxiety. Parents who are concerned that their teen has an anxiety disorder needs to look for some extreme key changes.

Signs of stress in teens are generally the same as signs of anxiety. Teens may experience emotional, physical, and behavioral changes. However, when a teen experiences these symptoms on a regular basis, they be signs of anxiety. Emotional changes to look out for are irritability, restlessness, and unexplained outbursts. Teens who experience anxiety may cry uncontrollably over little things or are afraid of making even minor mistakes with unreasonable consequences. Anxiety ridden teens also may have obsessive thoughts about events that may not happen. Anxious teens may expect something bad will happen and not be able to handle the consequences.

Not only does a teen experience emotional changes, but they will also experience physical changes. Teens will begin to complain about frequent headaches or stomach aches. They will complain about not feeling well despite there being no medical cause. Teens may begin to experience a change in their eating habits by eating too much or not enough. Teens who have anxiety may experience a change in their sleeping pattern. Typically, teens who experience anxiety have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. They can also be plagued by nightmares.

Seeking Help

Teens do not know how to cope with stress. They do not know how to cope with anxiety. They do not have the tools to find help. Parents who monitor changes in their teen’s behavior can help their teen overcome stress and anxiety. Parents can teach teens coping mechanisms for tackling stress and anxiety.

However, when anxiety stops your teen from functioning, its time to find therapeutic assistance. Ask your pediatrician or school psychologist for suggestions on someone who specializes in teen anxiety. The therapist can give you and your teen tools to manage symptoms and stressors. If anxiety is extreme, a therapist can also refer you to a doctor who will prescribe medication to help control those feelings. The first step to helping your teen cope with stress and anxiety is by recognizing the signs. Then, you can get appropriate help for them to live full and happy lives.

To learn more about mental health, click here.