Sometimes, just being a teenager is enough to cause anxiety. You’re going through a lot of physical and mental changes, while deciding where you want to go to college and what you want to do for the rest of your life.
But there’s a line between relatively normal anxiety and the kind of anxiety that can impair your ability to function. In fact, around 30 percent of teenage girls and 20 percent of teenage boys deal with an anxiety disorder. That sounds high, but experts suspect that number is actually too low, since many people have trouble seeking help for mental health issues. Here’s what you need to know about a couple of common anxiety disorders in teens.
We’re all a little obsessive about certain things. But obsessive-compulsive disorder (or OCD) is diagnosed when those obsessions take over your life in a way which makes it hard to function. People with OCD often have intrusive thoughts they simply can’t shake. They may perform rituals to try and alleviate the anxiety. For instance, constant hand-washing is a common symptom of OCD.
Most of us wash our hands after we use the bathroom and before we eat. But people with OCD may constantly feel like they’re contaminated somehow. They might feel the need to wash their hands every time they touch a doorknob, for example. Going through the ritual of hand-washing is comforting for a few minutes, at least until they get “dirty” again.
OCD is emotionally exhausting. For teenagers with this condition, virtually anything can inspire a compulsive thought, which in turn makes them feel like they must perform a certain ritual. In extreme cases, teenagers even turn to self-harm as a coping mechanism. A teenager who gets to that point can benefit from inpatient mental health treatment. The top adolescent treatment centers for teens will work to combat both the obsessive thoughts and accompanying rituals.
The National Institute of Mental Health identifies several major anxiety disorders. OCD is one of those, and panic disorders are another (generalized anxiety and phobia-related disorders are others still). A brief sense of panic is a natural reaction when we do something stressful, like waking up late for work. But panic disorders are much more debilitating than the everyday sense of panic which we all experience occasionally.
A panic attack can feel like a heart attack. You can sweat, tremble, and shake. Your heart rate will go up, and you may think everyone can hear your heart racing and is judging you for it. Some people report feeling like they’re about to die. Specific situations or people can set off a panic attack. For instance, a worker who had a relatively minor negative interaction with their boss may have a panic attack the next morning as they sit in the office parking lot. The idea of going inside and facing their boss feels literally impossible.
Teenagers can experience panic attacks before school, or before they take a major test like the SAT. Being a teen means pushing yourself to get out of your comfort zone as you transition to adulthood, and that’s hard enough without the feeling of doom that comes with a panic attack. To avoid these attacks, teenagers might decide to lower their expectations — they may skip out on college applications entirely because they’re afraid their mind and body will betray them.
In the end, avoidance isn’t a good strategy for dealing with panic attacks. You can only avoid so many things in life before you reach the point where you’re barely living. Finding treatment for panic disorders is hard because teenagers tend to be insecure anyway. They sometimes think they’re the only person in the world who ever felt a certain way. But panic disorders are surprisingly common, and they can be managed. Asking for assistance is often hard, but it’s the first step to getting your life back.