Few people are able to look back at their teen years without acknowledging them as being a challenging time. Particularly in our current society, teens are trapped maneuvering between childhood compliance and adult independence. They are expected to do what they are told, while also being expected to act autonomously and responsibly. These opposing forces of expectation are occurring as the teens also struggle to define who they are, and to determine how their lives are going to progress. It is little wonder that they are prone to experience anxiety during this transition period. Our teens can benefit from our understanding of the origins of their anxiety, and of methods toward helping them to navigate away from experiencing it.
The existence of “triggers” was once a revolutionary concept. The idea behind it has roots in cognitive behavioral psychology, where it is believed that there are precursors to our emotional reactions. A certain set of circumstances will be found to activate a person’s negative response set, similar to how knocking down the first domino in a carefully lined up row will result in the entire chain of dominoes tipping over.
Now that this concept has become more widely known, the application of the word “trigger” has been adopted into common conversation. People will often use it in a joking manner and apply it to any number of situations. There is also the tendency to overuse it or to employ it to manipulate or control the behavior of others. This misapplication of the concept, however, does not negate its value in understanding that some individuals are more prone to react to negative stimuli than others. When it comes to teenagers, there are certain scenarios – or triggers – which consistently heighten their vulnerability toward experiencing a chain reaction of anxiety.
Questions of Identity
From a psychological standpoint, the teen years are a period of time during which we develop our sense of self. Up until this point, children tend to accept direction and guidance from the adults around them. In preparation for adulthood, teens will begin a journey of self-exploration. Successful completion of this phase of development results in a young adult who is confident, secure, and self-aware. A teen who is unable to develop a sense of identity – and put it into practice – is going to experience anxiety over his or her status as an individual.
Perceptions of Social Acceptance
As part of this defining of self-identity, teens often seek feedback from peers. This type of feedback provides teens with cues as to whether the sense of self is going to lead to a life of success. For teens, experiencing peer rejection is a red flag that something about themselves is unacceptable to the group. In the early days of civilization, being accepted by the dominant group was key to survival, and this severe reaction to the potential of being outcast from the group has not diminished.
Concerns About the Future
Anxiety involves anticipation of the future. For teens, their vision of the future can include anticipation of academic, career, and financial difficulties. A teen who struggles in high school may develop anxiety about obtaining entrance into college. A teen who lacks a career goal may feel anxious about never becoming self-supporting. The increasing instances of young adults who continue to live at home can contribute to these worries surrounding eventual independence.
Severe anxiety over what the future holds responds well to cognitive behavioral therapy. Teens may not be able to change their current period of transition, but they are able to train themselves away from allowing the uncertainty to sweep them down the river of anxiety.
The concept of mindfulness has gained a lot of attention in recent years, and for good reason. Mindfulness techniques have been linked to psychological improvement in such diverse groups as those with depression, personality disorders, and even psychosis. Mindfulness is also a recommended method in treating symptoms of anxiety.
The experience of anxiety is usually focused on the future. Catastrophic thoughts of “what if?” play out in the mind of anxious teens. The events which are feared have not actually happened, but it is assumed that they will happen. Mindfulness practice encourages anxious teens to focus on the facts that exist in the present, rather than dwelling on what may happen in the future. It may be true, for instance, that they have been rejected by their peer group, but that does not mean they will always be rejected. Mindfulness allows teens to acknowledge and accept the uncomfortable feelings that accompany rejection, without feeling the urgency to apply the discomfort to future experiences.
As most adults are aware, having a plan – and a backup plan – can go a long way toward providing peace of mind. We stock up on flashlights and food supplies in case of an earthquake, install smoke detectors to alert us in the case of a fire, and save money for our eventual retirement. Removing these anticipatory elements could cause anyone to lose sleep.
A teen may not be able to think in the middle of an anxiety attack, but the circumstances surrounding it can later be analyzed and addressed toward creating a plan of action. In addition to making plans to avoid triggering situations, action steps to take when the anxiety hits are part of a good back up plan.
If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.
About Dr. Jeff Nalin
Dr. Jeff Nalin, Psy.D is an award-winning licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Founder and Chief Clinical Director at Paradigm Malibu Treatment Center. The center has locations in both Malibu and San Francisco. Dr. Nalin has been a respected leader in the field of emotional health, behavioral health and teen drug treatment for more than 15 years.
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.
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