Why Anxiety in Teens is So Prevalent and What Can Be Done

Why Anxiety in Teens is So Prevalent and What Can Be Done
Group of high school students taking notes and studying in a classroom
Jennifer Gunn August 16, 2018

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Teens in the United States are struggling with anxiety in record numbers, and students in our classrooms are stressed out, overstimulated, and distressed. What’s causing this abrupt shift and how can educators help? Let’s take a look.

Generalized anxiety disorder

Most of us feel some anxiety from time to time, which is easily connected to situational causes. However, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is “characterized by persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things,” according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). People with GAD may overly fret about life issues, school, work, money, or family, finding themselves in a spiral of intense mental anguish from which it can be difficult to escape.

“People with GAD don’t know how to stop the worry cycle and feel it is beyond their control, even though they usually realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants,” according to the ADAA. And while anxiety is a mental issue, it does manifest in physical ways.

Anxiety sufferers may experience:

  • An elevated heart rate
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Stomach problems
  • Shaking or sweating
  • Difficulty concentrating

GAD affects nearly 7 million adults in the U.S.; it is more prevalent amongst women and impacts children as well. In some cases, this anxiety disorder extends into panic attacks or social anxiety disorder.

Social anxiety disorder

Social anxiety, common in teens, is a bit different than GAD. “A person with social anxiety disorder feels symptoms of anxiety or fear in certain or all social situations, such as meeting new people, dating, being on a job interview, answering a question in class, or having to talk to a cashier in a store,” according to the National Institute for Mental Health. “Doing everyday things in front of people—such as eating or drinking in front of others or using a public restroom—also causes anxiety or fear. The person is afraid that he or she will be humiliated, judged, and rejected.”

During adolescence, a certain level of social anxiety can be chalked up to puberty. But in cases of a more serious social anxiety disorder, a person can feel sick to their stomach, sweat, shake, or find themselves unable to speak. They may completely shun social situations — sometimes not leaving the house at all.

The sharp rise in teen anxiety

Teen anxiety is more than a trending topic or a startling headline. Here are some concerning stats that accompany the sharp rise in cases of documented teen anxiety in the United States.

  • In 2017, the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment II found that nearly 61% of college students felt overwhelming anxiety, a sharp increase from 50% in 2011.
  • The number of kids and adolescents admitted to hospitals with suicidal ideation or for self-harming “more than doubled during the last decade,” according to research presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting.
  • In 2015, the National Institute for Mental Health reported that 30% of girls and 20% of boys – or 6.3 million teenagers – suffered from an anxiety disorder.

It’s fair to say that these numbers aren’t painting the full picture, given how many people don’t share their mental health struggles. But these numbers are cause for concern. It is clear that these kids are not alright.

Psychologist and author of Mommy Burnout, Dr. Sheryl Ziegler, looks to a rapidly changing world for answers. “I think that social media and technology, in general, are causing the significant rise in teen anxiety that our country is seeing. FOMO (fear of missing out), less face-to-face connection, pressures, bullying, news, violence, politics — it is all in the palm of a teen’s hand on a daily basis for hours.”

The number of teens who have smartphones or have access to them shot up from 37% in 2013 to 73% in 2015 to 89% at the end of 2016, according to the Pew Research Center.

A study by the University of Michigan, which referenced a large-sample survey of middle and high school students, found a correlation between smartphone usage and reported self-satisfaction. The increase in cell phone ownership among adolescents led to decreased self-esteem, life satisfaction, and overall happiness.

The report found that “adolescents who spent more time on electronic communication and screens (e.g., social media, the Internet, tech-based games) and less time on non-screen activities (e.g., in-person social interaction, sports, exercise, homework) had lower psychological well-being. Adolescents spending a small amount of time on electronic communication were the happiest.”

Dr. Ziegler concurs: “Phone addiction is real. ‘Digital Dementia’ is causing our teens to have less ability to focus and concentrate, they have shorter attention spans and overall it is breaking down a teen’s ability to think as clearly as possible.”

Beyond phones, life moves a bit faster these days. Dr. Marian Camden, psychologist and author of Going Back and Forth: A Joint Custody Story, says that “for teens, life is more complicated than ever before. The pressures of school, extracurricular activities, socializing, work, and preparing for college and the work world are intense.”

She notes that teens lack precious downtime and quiet reflection today, living amongst a barrage of stimulation. “The brain and nervous system need downtime in order to switch into the parasympathetic mode. When we are active, our neurons are working hard. But when we are resting, that’s the time our marvelous glial cells get busy healing and growing. Those glial cells help us put our lives in order. They give us a sense of identity and our place in the grand scheme. Teens need time just to sit and stare! Let’s give them a break.”

What anxiety looks like in class

Teachers are on the frontlines of helping teens cope and prevent anxiety, but knowing the signs is the first step. The symptoms mentioned above may be visible but are often not. Dr. Ziegler notes that in the classroom setting “signs of anxiety may look like excessive worry about assignments and grades, asking the teacher to repeat themselves often, writing every single thing down at times furiously, showing signs of getting easily frustrated, clearly nervous, maybe exhibiting nervous behaviors such as tapping and difficulty concentrating.”

Mary Dowling, a social worker and therapist in New York City, suggests that teachers should look out for “emotional changes (irritability, difficulty concentrating, unexplained outbursts); social changes (isolating, avoiding extracurricular activities); physical changes (frequent headaches, stomachaches, excessive fatigue, crying); sleep disturbances; and a sudden change in school performance (drop in grades, missed assignments).”

What teachers can do

Paula Politte, M.S.S., suggests that teachers utilize social-emotional learning (SEL) to teach students the skills they need to cope with life’s challenges. “Most educators are doing what they can, but teachers are often up against issues like limited time with students and/or students who have experienced trauma, poverty, or issues of inequity,” Politte says. “There are many great resources available (for teachers, parents, and adolescents), but the resources only work if the teenagers learn these skills in order to adapt to their ever-changing and challenging world.” Social-emotional learning activities can help teens take hold of their mental health and cope with a stressful world.

Find out how to engage families in social-emotional learning.

Accommodations and support

When dealing with students who face anxiety, Dr. Ziegler recommends taking students aside to let them know that you are noticing some distress and are there to help. “I have found in my private practice that the kids I work with who do better in school have teachers who make subtle accommodations for them such as sending home the assignments or homework in writing or in an email or posted online somewhere so that they don’t stress about missing what to do,” she says. “Also, providing additional time for tests or not having timed tests helps. Lastly, if a teacher notices that the student with anxiety is sitting next to someone who distracts them, moving them is helpful.”

Dr. Ziegler urges teachers to view anxiety, which is often coupled with depression, as one would dyslexia or ADHD, making the necessary classroom accommodations for students to best learn and thrive.

Quiet time and a safe space

As Dr. Camden noted, students need some downtime in order to give their minds a much-needed rest. Providing quiet reflection time in the classroom, device-free time, and/or meditation periods can go a long way toward healing an anxious mind. The classroom can function as a safe place for students to talk, find community, and learn life skills that will better prepare them for coping in a busy world. Says social worker and therapist Mary Dowling, “Everyone deserves to find a safe space to explore and articulate their thoughts and feelings, especially teenagers.”

Additional resources

Jennifer Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, a teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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