Holistic Treatment of Anxiety in Teens
Many teens find themselves unable to cope with the demands and stressors of adolescence, a period characterized by rapid developmental changes in multiple domains (e.g., physical, emotional, cognitive, hormonal, sexual).
Sometimes teens experience distress severe enough to meet the criteria for mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders. The present article will discuss the holistic management of anxiety disorders, which are prevalent during adolescence and can cause significant impairment and dysfunction.
Anxiety disorders in teens
According to the National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement, almost one in three adolescents has experienced (or will experience) an anxiety disorder.
Some common anxiety disorders in teens include generalized anxiety disorder, phobias (particularly social phobia), and panic disorder. A brief description of these disorders, as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), follows below.
Generalized anxiety disorder:
The key feature of this disorder is excessive and uncontrollable worry (e.g., about an upcoming test). Other symptoms are restlessness, tension, irritability, concentration problems, sleep difficulties, and becoming fatigued easily.
This condition is characterized by panic attacks that have no obvious triggers (e.g., experiencing an attack while reading). Panic attacks are sudden surges of fear and are associated with symptoms like sweating, chills, nausea, and fear of going crazy or dying.
Also called social anxiety disorder, social phobia is associated with severe anxiety in social situations where one might be evaluated negatively (e.g., meeting strangers at a party, eating in the cafeteria, delivering an oral presentation in class).
Treatments for anxiety disorders in Teens
Anxiety disorders are typically treated with drugs usually referred to as antidepressants. Commonly prescribed antidepressants for anxiety disorders include SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), like Prozac, and SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors), like Cymbalta.
However, compared to a purely pharmacological approach (i.e. use of medications), a holistic approach is more likely to be successful. Why? Because medications will not help solve all the problems that cause or contribute to anxiety disorders. And because some adolescents are less likely to adhere to their medications (due to the drugs’ adverse effects).
A holistic approach uses a variety of tools to address not just the anxiety symptoms but also other issues that affect one’s well-being. For instance, it helps young people learn how to improve their sleep habits, eat more nutritious food, become more physically active, develop healthy routines (e.g., practice relaxation techniques before going to bed), and build a strong social support network.
Types of Common Therapies for Treatment of Anxiety in Teens
Toward this goal, clinicians might also use therapies like biofeedback, hypnosis, music therapy, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga.
As for psychotherapy, depending on the person’s needs, a variety of modalities might be employed (e.g., psychodynamic psychotherapy, family therapy). Given the scientific support it has received, chances are that one modality most recommended will be cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
CBT targets anxiety-related cognitions (e.g., selective attention to cues of danger), behaviors (e.g., avoidance), and physiological reactions (e.g., muscle tension). Individuals receiving CBT will learn how to become more self-aware, manage somatic symptoms of anxiety, challenge maladaptive thoughts and expectations, engage in positive self-talk, and gradually expose and desensitize themselves to what they feel anxious about (e.g., socializing, dating, sports participation).
Let me end by noting that it is important to treat anxiety disorders early because they can result in dysfunction and impede developmentally appropriate activities. For instance, severe anxiety negatively impacts friendship, dating, sports participation, and academic performance.
But by teaching them how to manage their anxiety successfully—using not just medications but other tools available to us (e.g., therapy, exercise, nutrition)—we can help adolescents find their strength and become more resilient.
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