Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

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Questions about anxiety #1: How is teenage anxiety different?

No Worries is a book for teenagers, though anyone might enjoy and learn from it as, really, there’s more that links us than separates us.  But readers of this blog tend to be adults and in a recent post I asked you to ask your specific questions

And you did!

Liz asked the first question:

“I would love to know what you think is individual to teenage anxiety and how it differs from adult anxiety”

I’ll break this down into what I think is the same and what I think is different.

What is the same?

Anxiety itself is the same thing, whoever is experiencing it

In terms of biology, it’s the brain’s response to a perceived threat. The brain fires off the stress hormones, adrenalin and cortisol, to make us super-alert and super-powerful, in case we need to run or fight or do something to the best of our ability.

In No Worries, I use the analogy of a guard dog, snarling and being aggressive to anything it thinks is a threat. That’s great, because it keeps us safe and strong and successful. But it’s not great if the guard dog snarls at things that are not real threats or if it snarls at its owner.

All of that is the same, whatever our age.

The effects on the body and mind are also the same

These are things such as: sweating, raised heart-rate, shallow breathing, feeling sick, loss of appetite (or tendency to make unhealthy choices), stomach-aches and headaches, loss of concentration, forgetfulness and errors, poor sleep, generally feeling distressed and uncomfortable.

What is different?

Note that when I say that adults are “better” than teenagers at some things, I don’t mean all adults are better than all teenagers! I mean theoretically, statistically, generally.

Life experience

Generally – but not always – as we get older we have more experience of dealing with and surviving feeling anxious and we learn that we can cope. We also learn how to cope. That life experience gives us (or should) strength.

Prefrontal cortex (PFC)

The PFC is often called the control centre and it isn’t fully developed until mid-late 20s. It allows us to operate relatively “coolly” rather than “hotly” or highly emotionally. Of course, we often are highly emotional but we should usually find it easier to engage our rational control centre and deal with our anxiety better than a teenager or child. For example, I can say to myself, “It’s not useful to worry about this right now when you’re trying to sleep. Leave it till the morning.”

Ability to put in context

The PFC also allows us to rationalise. For example, if I’m feeling anxious about giving a talk I can say things to myself such as “This is not really the biggest deal – you’ve done this before and  you’ll be fine” or “Loads of people have done things like this and everyone will be feeling a bit nervous”. Or if I have a medical symptom I can do better than a teenager at working through how I will deal with this. I can even use statistics better than a typical young person.

Ability to look ahead and foresee feeling better

Again, the PFC is able to look ahead to a time when this threat has passed. I can say to myself, “Just imagine how you’ll feel in a few hours when this is over”

Knowledge of strategies

An adult should have learnt lots of strategies and had opportunities to practise them. We know how to calm our breathing, the value of going for a run or reading an escapist book.

Some triggers of anxiety

Although we can all have things going on that make us anxious, and although we have things like paying the mortgage, retaining our jobs, and managing family, teenagers are often surrounded and overwhelmed by anxiety triggers and have much less control over their day than we usually do. Teenagers are surrounded by peers, pressures, people telling them what to do and all the cacophony of social media. They are breaking away from reliance on parent and teachers and this puts them on high alert. And it’s all relatively new for them – only a little while ago they were protected and fully dependent on you. Now, they are biologically being driven to move away. There are dangers around them and they have to be alert to them.

In short

Anxiety itself is the same whoever we are but our responses to that anxiety and how it feels are not quite the same.

We therefore need to be more understanding and more accepting and act with more guidance than we should need to when reacting to an adult feeling anxious. Having said that, because I realise that many adults also need support and understanding, I would really say just the same to anyone coming to me and expressing problems with anxiety!

One extra point I’d make, which is also the same for everyone: anxiety is natural, healthy, normal. You are not ill because you are anxious.

We just all need to learn to manage our anxiety. We need to tame that guard dog so it doesn’t snarl at us.

Thank you for your question, Liz. I hope that has been of some help.

Don’t forget to enter the giveaway for No Worries here.

No Worries is now on the list of books you can buy in the Gift for a Teenager!

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