You are sitting in a meeting, are at the market, or are stuck in traffic, when the first feelings of anxiety emerge. You feel tight-chested. Your heart is racing. Your hands are sweating. The first feelings of panic increase as fear of a heart attack feels imminent!
As an adult, you may be all too familiar with this occurrence. If you have experience managing the symptoms associated with anxiety you may take a moment to pray, do some deep breathing exercises, call a loved one, or use one of the many cognitive-behavioral therapeutic interventions available.
Anxiety attacks for a teenager who has not run the gambit of medical or mental health assessments may very well feel like death is imminent. Without the benefit of explanation, the teenage mind will run the worst-case scenario, quickly!
Cardiac disease in adolescents is a rare occurrence. Teens with non-medical chest pains may be experiencing anxiety from stress or depression. The importance of immediate intervention is to find the root cause. First, the teen needs to have a full medical evaluation to rule out any medical condition.
Studies show that root causes can be bullying at school, depression, and/or academic underperformance issues. Everyone feels stress or anxiety at some point. Some of the stressors contributing to these feelings are criticism from others, family conflict, peer discrimination, and/or interpersonal conflict.
A mental health professional can work with your teen to create an intervention that will help them cope with feelings of anxiety before it detracts from quality of life. Unaddressed, anxiety and stress can interfere with daily life and cause your teen to avoid doing things they enjoy or, they may be experiencing anxiety as a response to a fear of experiencing more anxiety.
If your teen is struggling with stress and anxiety various techniques can help. Journal keeping is a terrific way to track occurrences. What may seem to be “all the time” might be less. Also, journaling helps the teen track improvement of symptoms and frequency.
Exercise, reducing caffeine intake, sticking to a sleep routine, and eating healthy meals is another way to reduce symptoms. Eating foods high in Omega-fats has been shown to decrease anxiety. Foods such as Alaskan salmon and grass-fed beef help keep cortisol and adrenaline levels from spiking.
Downloading an app such as “Calm,” is beneficial, as the app offers many guided meditations, deep breathing exercises, and calming music. The app also has daily regimens either preprogrammed or tailored to the individual. The app has a dual feature that logs progress, which is beneficial if your teen is more apt to use an electronic device over a traditional journal.
The app features include reminders, options to invite friends to join a “meditation team” based on social media contacts. Keeping a journal or utilizing an app, and incorporating mindfulness into regular life, helps identify new patterns or changes that are occurring.
It is also helpful to seek professional support to help your teen identify and challenge negative, intrusive thoughts. A professional will help your teen learn about triggers in their environment.
Together with the professional, your teen can create an anxiety safety plan, through the process of trial and error of what works best for them. Open dialogue with a trained adult can create a safe space for the teen to talk about sources of anxiety which they may feel is personal outside of the parental or caregiver relationship.
The most important support system is helping your teen stay connected. Staying connected with people who can provide emotional support such as a family member, friend, clergy, or a trusted member of the community. Social support allows the teen to believe they are cared for and loved, esteemed, and a member of a caring community, and the community will provide trusted, empathic concern, such as those found in church-based support systems.
Church-based social support systems have stress-buffering effects. A teen who has a relationship with God and is embedded in a church community is more likely to have close, informal relationships with other church members, such as other teens, from church activities or Bible study groups.
A popular approach to managing stress and anxiety is through mindfulness, an approach to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Cognitive therapy focuses on identifying, challenging, and neutralizing unhelpful intrusive thoughts which underlie experiences of anxiety.
CBT can be used individually or in groups and will often come with homework for your teen to practice the technique at home. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques such as prayer, meditation, and breathing exercises, can help your teen stay “present” when feeling stress and anxiety, providing comfort when one of the other support systems is unavailable.
What is mindfulness? Many find the practice of meditation to be difficult for various reasons. A common complaint is a sense of not being able to stop intrusive thoughts from popping up after a short time. The thing to remember is there is no ‘wrong” way to be mindful. Being mindful means being in the present.
For example, if you have found a quiet space and have decided to commit ten minutes to a meditation exercise, but found after deep breath number three, your mind is right back to worrying about what chore must be done. It is easy to give up after the first attempt if one is unable to meditate like the most resolute and experienced of Tibetan Monks. Being mindful is realizing your brain has started to derail the inner peace you are practicing.
The beauty of mindfulness is that caught your mind starting to wander. Being mindful in knowing you can stop, take a deep breath, and begin again. Give yourself credit. The success was the decision to set time aside for yourself to try something new. Do not get discouraged if you must start over multiple times. There is no failing. This is what your teen needs to hear. There is no pressure, no right or wrong way.
Adding mindfulness to a CBT practice helps a person breathe through stress and anxiety without giving in to catastrophizing. CBT helps your teen recognize the connection between thought, emotion, behavior, and action. Stress and anxiety cause a maladaptation to form in this process, perpetuating the cycle of stress and anxiety.
Fostering positive thought, contemplation, and reflection is just as easy as nurturing negative thought, lamentation, and deflection. With the first, there is a better emotional outcome.
One program which has had remarkable success with Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MCBT) is the MCBT 8-week program offered for free by Palouse Mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School has designed a program online which is 100% free to anyone.
A benefit to the Palouse Mindfulness method is the freedom to take as long as you want to learn about the practice, without any expectation or financial influence. There is an online forum if support is needed, or questions arise. Some teens respond well to like-minded online communities support groups, and one on one communication is available as well.
Utilizing MCBT is an effective complement to regular ongoing CBT counseling sessions. If you are interested in learning more, it can be discussed during a regular session, or you can email me to discuss any additional questions you may have.
“Teen Boy”, Courtesy of Erik Lucatero, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Praying Girl”, Courtesy of PublicDomainPictures, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Empty Journal Page”, Courtesy of Darkmoon Art, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Yoga”, Courtesy of Madison Lavern, Unsplash.com, CC0 License