Being a teenager means experiencing a wide range of physical, emotional and social changes, which can often make them vulnerable to anxiety. If you have a teen in your life who has experienced anxiety, you know how hard it can be to help them.
It is useful to acknowledge that anxiety is a perfectly normal reaction to stress.
Anxiety lets us know when we’re in danger, or when something important is happening so we can perform at our best. It can help youth deal with overwhelming situations like exams, presentations, or going out on a first date. It’s something that everyone experiences occasionally. It’s critical to our survival. But what happens when there isn’t any actual danger?
A good formula to remember is that anxiety equals an overestimation of the danger, plus an underestimation of your coping skills, plus intolerance for uncertainty, unpredictability and feeling uncomfortable.
Helping youth cope with anxiety involves encouraging realistic estimates of danger, boosting their confidence through coping skills, and building their tolerance for uncertainty, unpredictability and discomfort.
Sleep is a non-negotiable foundation of managing anxiety. A dark, cool bedroom and avoiding screen time an hour before bed can be helpful to encourage your teen’s natural ability to sleep. Progressive muscle relaxation and sleep stories (low plot, highly descriptive, slow speed, gentle tone and volume) can help lull them off to sleep. Apps like Calm are really helpful in putting these techniques at their fingertips.
Exercise is also non-negotiable, especially cardiovascular exercise. A great way to describe the benefits to youth is that by increasing their heart rate, they can “burn off anxiety fuel”. Just 10-15 mins of cardio before school can make a huge difference! Try something new every day like jumping jacks, running with the dog, having a dance party, jumping rope, shadow boxing, or playing hula hoop.
When your child is experiencing anxiety, it’s important to focus on grounding and the breath rather than talking. Calming the body actually helps reset the mind, because the brain believes what it experiences, not what it is told. While your first instinct is to reassure them, it won’t make them feel understood.
Square breathing can ease someone out of a panic attack, and is a technique used by paramedics, firefighters, and the military. Breathe in through the nose for a count of four, hold for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four, and hold for a count of four. Then repeat for 3-4 cycles. An emotionally neutral time like bedtime is a good moment to practice square breathing. Practice will make it easier for them to use the technique when they’re feeling anxious. Offering some Truehope Inositol will make it easier!
Asking insightful questions is the final, cognitive part of helping youth get through anxiety. This should be the last technique to try when your teen is anxious, and should only happen after you have helped them calm their body.
First, acknowledge that this is really bothering them, and empathize that you would feel the same if you believed the same things. Then you can move onto asking them questions, listening to their responses without offering reassurance.
- “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
- “How would that feel?”
- “What helps you when you feel that?” (Listen for resilience and coping strategies).
- “What’s the best thing that could happen? How would you feel? What would you do?”
- “What’s the most likely thing that could happen? How would you feel? What would you do?”
You then summarize what was said and help them create a plan for each of the possibilities. Then you can finally offer help and reassurance.
If you can only implement one of these strategies, focus on exercise. If you think you can do two of them, focus on exercise and breathing.
Anxiety is more common in youth who have a higher IQ, higher EQ (emotional intelligence), and a higher sensory profile – meaning they are generally more sensitive to the world around them. You can teach them about anxiety, how it’s perfectly natural, and how to manage it when it gets out of control, while remembering to always follow the golden rule: Calm the body before calming the mind.
Look for next week’s blog where we talk about the importance of micronutrients in youth mental health.