The uncertainty and restrictions of the COVID era has made the challenges of adolescence even tougher for today’s teens. Recently published research from the US Surgeon General’s Youth Mental Health Advisory panel found that anxiety and depressive symptoms doubled during the pandemic. According to the report, at least 1 in 5 youths of the 80,000 included in the research reported significant symptoms of anxiety.
As a teenager, myself, and the co-founder of PositiviTeens® , I have had the opportunity to listen to hundreds of young people from around the world share the many common concerns we have that fuel our anxiety. As teens, we often think we are the only people experiencing anxiety, but we are not. The discussion always evolves into the important questions of “What can we do about it” and “How do we cope with anxiety?”
In talking with experts in the fields of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Counseling Psychology, Stress Management, & Sports Psychology, I have gathered strategies for tackling teenage anxiety. Some of us may not even have the label or words to describe the feelings that encompass anxiety and stress, but no matter what you call the feelings the following tips may help you cope more positively.
Top Ten Tips for Teenage Anxiety
Understand the “Why”
Understand the “Why” of those anxious feelings. Anxiety can be viewed as an important survival mechanism that has evolved throughout time with us humans. The feelings of anxiety can be there to help us rally to take on a challenge, a perceived threat, a struggle we are not prepared for, danger, or something that is a risk to us.
Anxiety is neither bad nor good
Anxiety is neither bad or good – it’s a feeling, or a group of feelings, that should not be judged. Try thinking of anxiety as alarm bells that are trying to tell us something. Is it fear of a particular event or outcome? It is fear that things won’t work out? Is it a sense of feeling powerless? What might those feelings be telling you? Try making a list of what is in that brewing pot of anxiety tea. What else might be steaming?
Coping with anxiety can’t be achieved by over-thinking it. So, while you are understanding it (see above), be careful not to cope with it by dwelling on it without taking action. Sports psychologist, Dr. Jonathan Fader, says “You can’t think your way out of stress, you can only DO your way out of stress”. I believe the same holds true for anxiety. When you feel anxiety coming on, don’t wait to see how you are going to react to it. Instead, prepare for your response and for taking positive action. Taking action is one strategy often used by mental health professionals in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). When you feel anxiety rising within you, think of what positive and healthy action you could take to move beyond it. Often, the action involves getting support from friends or family. The action could be in the form exercise, playing music, painting, drawing, or mindful meditation. The actions can be in forms of small steps, rather than grand efforts. If it’s starting a school project, try setting a goal of taking a small “chunk” of the workload by setting a timer for 20 minutes. Start it, take a short break. The act of initiating the project will make you feel better than overthinking it. Taking action can also mean getting support from a qualified helping professional, counselor, or adult you trust.
Understand that teenage anxiety often arises from “knowledge gaps”. When we don’t have enough information about the “why” or “how” we are supposed to do something, it can set off the anxiety alarm bells. This often happens with school assignments when we don’t understand the concepts being taught, or even WHY we were given the assignment. Homework and test anxiety is a common challenge for teens because of knowledge gaps. Too often, we do not understand the purpose of the assignment, the reason we were assigned the work, and what the teacher expects. I have a homework tip sheet on this topic!
Identify what you can or can’t control. This is an important strategy in managing anxiety. There is a lot we can’t control in our lives (especially now), but it helps to review those things in our lives that we actually can control. One thing I believe we have more control over, than we realize, is our attitude. The second thing we have more control over is how we decide to respond to a stressful situation. Can you think of some positive and effective ways to respond when you are stressed that will result in a better outcome for you? Many sports stars and performers actually practice responses ahead of time.
Breathe into the anxiety. Positive Psychology coach and stress coach, Caren Osten, uses the STOP method for coping through breathing. When we breathe in response to anxiety, it can help us feel more controlled and centered. Breathing is a way to get back in touch with yourself, instead of the anxiety. Try practicing this strategy the next time you feel anxiety overpowering your thoughts. STOP! S = stop before you react. T = take a deep breath, sensing the air expanding from your chest, into your belly through the rest of your body. O = Observe what your body is doing in response to the situation and think of how you want to appropriately respond, or not respond at all – just stay neutral. You can always say “Let me think about this” or “I’m taking time and will get back to you later”. P= Proceed feeling in control.
Anxiety can be an energy force, rather than a foe. You can learn to harness the energy of anxiety by flipping the way you see it. For example, you might be a student who gets anxious before a test. Instead of worrying about the things you can’t control, harness the power of what you do know and what you prepared for. The test becomes a chance to show what you know. Of course, this works only if you actually are prepared. That brings us to the next tip.
Preparation is proactive coping for anxiety. The more prepared you are, the more information you have, and the more coping strategies you have practiced in advance will help you better manage anxiety.
Anxiety often creeps up on us because we are not prepared and because we have not looked ahead. When playing sports or a game, whether football or shooting hoops, what would happen if you did not anticipate or look ahead? Coping with anxiety can be like a sport because what your focusing on is where you will end up. If you just focus on the negative and not take action, chances are you will stay in the same spot. What are you spending time on that might be keeping you from actually making effective change and coping with anxiety? Look toward where you want to go and set a course. Do you want to feel the same way six months from now? If not, then you have to be the one to decide where you want to be emotionally and physically.
Practice for positivity. Remember that we often stick to thoughts that are unhelpful. This is due in part to our evolutionary survival mechanisms that include the “negativity bias”. Psychologist and author, Dr Rick Hanson, says “The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” So, catch yourself in a negative response mode and flip the narrative. Instead of focusing on what went wrong, think of 3 things that “went right” today. What did you learn from the challenges today? What made you feel validated, strong, and empowered today? Savor the positive events and experiences, rather than taking them for granted.
Connect with me to learn more about upcoming PositiviTeens® courses through Meaningful Paths LTD (UK). For tips on coping with school-related anxiety (homework and tests), check out my upcoming advice on “Studying Smarter- Not Harder”.
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