We have written this resource page to provide adolescents and parents / educators with the statistics behind anxiety, examples of helpful interventions and links to mental health organizations.
We often use the word “stressed” in our society, which can mean many different things to the person saying it. They might feel like something in their life is out of control, or they could feel overburdened, or irritated, or many other things.
Similar to the word "stressed," “anxious” can also mean a lot of different things to different people. This is where the skill of stopping to think about the core emotions behind these words is a great one to hone. Understanding leads to the most effective interventions.
It can be helpful when thinking about anxious feelings to know that often the anxious feelings are actually fear. Fear of an uncertain future, fear that you did the wrong thing (regret is a type of anxiousness), fear of what will happen if you ask someone for something, and then the fear of how that person will perceive you.
In Washington State, there is a survey of high schoolers every two years. Here are the 2021 Healthy Youth Survey results regarding anxious feelings for teens in the state:
There is an incredible dearth of data in this country to be able to effectively compare data about youths' anxious feelings over recent years. Often, people cite two surveys of college students.
For example, the American College Health Association surveys students from many colleges over many years. They have been asking if students "ever felt overwhelming anxiety in the past 12 months." In 2011, roughly 50% reported yes and in 2016, approximately 58% reported yes.
The other study of U.S. freshmen asked if they ever "felt overwhelmed."
The numbers* here come from the main comprehensive study on youth mental health, called the National Comorbidity study-Adolescent Supplement. When any book or scientific paper references rates of adolescent clinical anxiety, this is the paper to which they are referring.
*The numbers here were rounded to the nearest tenth.
By Age 18...
Unfortunately, the data collected for this study was done in the early 2000s and published in 2010, and there has not been a follow up study. I know this is shocking. I have spoken with the researchers, and they told me it had to do a lot with a lack of funding.
Some anxious feelings are to be expected and are even helpful. For example, anxiousness in anticipation of a test in a few days can help motivate a students study for a test.
When anxious feelings are out of proportion for the situation and the feeling is much more intense than the fact, this may indicate clinical anxiety.
For example, these two scenarios would be cause for concern:
The main questionnaire used in health settings to help diagnose clinical anxiety is called the GAD 7.
It starts with these questions:
If you checked off any problems:
(Options are from "Not difficult at all" to "Extremely difficult")
When symptoms are ongoing, there can be real suffering that can lead to avoidance of certain situations. So, while it is common for teens to feel a bit nervous about going up to talk with a peer, a more intense nervousness that presents as avoidance and isolation could indicate a more severe problem.
Anxious feelings leading to avoidance and suffering are signs that anxiety is a clinical problem and should be addressed with professional help, such as counselors or therapists.
These skills are even helpful for youth who are not diagnosed with clinical anxiety but find themselves worrying more than they'd like to be. Let's start with a skill that can help with all types of anxious feelings — not just clinical anxiety.
The goal of this therapy is to work towards no longer avoiding things that a person knows they are irrationally avoiding. It is about eventually doing the things the person is avoiding over and over, so they get used to the uncomfortable feelings and learn how to do actions despite anxious feelings. Meanwhile, the more times the anxiety-inducing action is repeated, the anxious feelings will begin to go down by some degree.
This technique is done in graded steps. For example, a teen is too anxious to participate in class. They might not even be able to verbalize what they are actually afraid of, but they might be able to verbalize the reasons why they are afraid. Maybe they worry that people will judge them poorly or laugh at them and not want to associate with them.
Graded steps that might work for the student.
This is challenging to do, but the good news is its high success rate. As the teen does these exposures, as they step into the discomfort of getting scaffolding and support, you can actually see changes in the brain scans of the amygdala. It is no longer as hyperactive as it was before.
In Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER, Olivia, who is 15, had clinical social anxiety, and her therapeutic exposure task was to go to a shopping mall and ask for sushi at a pizza place. She needed to practice being embarrassed. Practicing uncomfortable feelings like embarrassment makes real-life situations that much more tolerable. Not everyone has to order sushi at a pizza place. Someone who gets anxious on phone calls might start by calling a friend on the phone. You take baby steps.
People need a lot of support through exposure therapy. Asking youth to face their fears and anxiety is so hard to do as a parent and even harder for the youth to take on. But if it wasn't a hard task, it would be an easy thing to get over.
It can be helpful for parents to find other parents who are going through a similar situation. Other parents are not only a source of support but also a way to find resources.
Getting counseling for the child or teen is key. It can also be helpful for parents to be part of that counseling at times. In addition, parents usually benefit from things like their own counseling, support groups or parent coaching.
In Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER, we learn how Delaney's son, Chase, uses the 10% Happier app to learn mindfulness skills from George Mumford, who has taught these skills to athletes, including Michael Jordan.
Delaney says in reference to her son,
"My son, Chase, also found an online tool that has really helped him. He's had chronic pain from an accident years ago and lots of stress because of it. From his favorite online teacher he's been learning mindfulness. It's all about getting more insight into one's patterns of thinking and learning to direct attention to more helpful thoughts."
In the film, Chase talks about it in this way:
"There's the sensation of pain, but then I add the stress of being in pain and the emotional baggage of the history of the pain and the uncertainty of the future of the pain. And I recognize that I actually have a lot more control over this than I thought. So in my day-to-day when I'm in physical or emotional pain, I can be mindful of the negative layers that are building up on top of it and intervene before they themselves cause unnecessary suffering."
(Delaney and her teens have used all of these at different times)
Provides useful skills for overcoming intense feelings, including anxiety.
The TIPP skill is an example. If a person is suddenly overcome by anxiety or other strong emotions, doing one of these strategies can change a person's physiology, which helps stop or lower their intense emotions.
T- Temperature — the person applies ice in a bag to their face for a minute or two. Many teens also talk about how useful it is to put their faces into an ice bath of water for a few seconds.
I - Intense exercise — the person uses the energy of their emotions to do some quick jumping jacks or high knees.
P - Paced breathing — the person slows their breathing by breathing in for 5 seconds in and then breathing out for 7.
P - Paired muscle relaxation — the person breaths in and tenses a body part at the same time, such as their arms. They pay attention to the feeling of the contractions and then when they breathe out, they release the contraction.
This organization has information on stress and many types of anxiety conditions as well as links to find help for children, teens and adults.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness has local branches across the country and offers support groups, online resources, programs in schools and more.
The site provides many written materials and links to awareness campaigns. My Younger Self, for example, is 30 short interviews with actors, athletes, and other celebrities who discuss their past mental health challenges.
These are free day-long courses designed to help parents better understand youth mental health issues better. On the website, you can find if there are classes near you.
This organization has affiliates across the country. The website has links to information, and they also do important work in working to increase mental health access, locally and nationally. This page on their website is helpful for the nuts and bolts of finding mental health support.
This international emotional intelligence network researches and shares tools, methods and training to create a kinder, more positive world.
Born This Way Foundation was started by Lady Gaga and her mother. The organization works to build a "braver, kinder world" for youth by creating safe-spaces and promoting self-care skills.
This site is a great place find a therapist, psychiatrist or support group in your area. You put in your zip code and any specifics about the patient, such as "adolescent," and it will list many possible providers. You can then contact the provider and set up a short call in order to see if they're a good fit.
A free, 24/7 support for those in crisis. Text 741741 from anywhere in the U.S. to text with a trained Crisis Counselor. Crisis Text Line trains volunteers to support people in crisis. This organization is a resource that many youth and adults report using and feeling helped. People who volunteer for CT receive 30 hours of training before they start, and they volunteer several hours a month.
"My good friend is a volunteer, and we spent an afternoon together, where she showed me how Crisis Text Line's training works and examples of the work she does with people. It was powerful. A person can text about anything they are struggling with, and the volunteers are there and provide supportive interactions. Even though it is called the Crisis Text Line, the texter does not need to be in imminent crisis to get help. They get all sorts of people seeking support for things like eating issues, problems with peers and just people dealing with hard emotions." — Delaney Ruston, MD
Connects you to caring listeners for free emotional support and offers online therapy.
This online therapy resource connects people to affordable therapy with a licensed professional who is compatible with them.
1-800-448-3000. 24-hour, free, confidential hotline staffed by trained counselors for boys and girls to receive help with bullying, anger, abuse, depression, school issues and more.
A free and confidential national hotline that connects callers with resources and support in their area.