Anxiety And The Teenage Brain... What Helps and What Doesn't

Updated: Mar 20



Anxiety can be difficult to tackle in any stage of life, but it is particularly challenging to deal with during adolescence. Excessive fears and distress can impair your teen’s ability to function normally and interfere with their academics, family life, friendships, and overall emotional state.


As a parent, you can probably notice the tension and worry on your child's face. And while you might wish that you could simply brush off their fears, you also know that navigating your teens can be challenging enough already. Many things you say or do may end up having the opposite effect, and that's why it's essential to understand how anxiety works.


Understanding Anxiety


When your teen experiences a negative thought, they are often consciously or unconsciously frightened or worried about an issue or an outcome. These negative, fear-based thoughts cause neurons to significantly activate regions of the brain, which trigger a fight-or-flight response – the body’s physiological reaction to severe stress and danger.


Neurologically speaking, when a region of the brain activates the fight-or-flight response, hormones (adrenaline and others) are released that prepare the body to either stay and deal with a threat or to run away to safety. Their pulse races, breathing speeds up, and pupils dilate – all in response to perceived danger.


This is an expected physical response when your teen is faced with severe stress or what they perceive to be a threat. It can happen in the face of imminent physical danger (such as encountering a growling dog) or as a result of a psychological threat (such as preparing for a big exam at school).


A certain amount of fear in these situations is normal because it can help your teen prepare for real danger. For example, the fear of failure can motivate them to study hard for an exam or practice for a big game. However, there is a fine line between what is considered healthy (acute anxiety) and unhealthy (chronic anxiety). While acute anxiety can push your teen to work for a desired outcome, chronic anxiety can leave them in a perpetual state of distress, overwhelm and fear even when there are no circumstances that warrant it.


It is very important for a parent to understand that chronic anxiety is not based on current circumstances. It occurs when a region of the brain gets “stuck” in a fight-or-flight state. This is similar to how a muscle spasm gets “stuck” in a constricted state when it should be relaxed. Chronic anxiety is a neurological dysregulation that physically changes how the brain functions. It consistently release adrenaline and other fight-or-flight hormones that force your teen into survival mode. In this state, their brain misinterprets every thought as a fear or threat and leaves them feeling insecure and dwelling on the worst possible outcome.


What NOT To Do


When you see your child struggling, your first instinct might be to try to figure out how you can help them feel better. Or perhaps you attempt to encourage them to let go of their negative thoughts and fears. And although your intentions are good, they may not respond the way you’d like them to and might even accuse you of not understanding what they’re going through. Here are a few things to avoid doing.


1. Telling Your Teen to Stop Thinking About It: This is an attempt to block the thoughts that cause anxiety. This can have the opposite effect and make those fearful thoughts more frequent and noticeable.


2. Jumping in With Advice: Advice-giving tells a teen what to think and do but does not teach them how to think and behave when anxious. Teens do best when they learn a systematic way of thinking and responding to anxiety, no matter the specific fear.


3. Allowing Avoidance of Fears: By avoiding, teens don't learn that the situations they avoid are not necessarily dangerous or intolerable. For example, if you enable a teen with anxiety to stay at home on the day of a test, that teen doesn't learn how to cope with test-taking the next time around.


Parenting Strategies To Help Your Teen


Guiding your teen through feelings of distress and worry can be challenging. Even though you have valuable knowledge and an opportunity to help your child build powerful coping skills, the strategies you use might not work every time.


And that's understandable. Anxiety is a complicated disorder, especially when one is navigating it in their teens. Here are a few strategies that may help.


1. Connect Before You Correct: There are two key ways you can build a connection with your teen when they are in the midst of an anxious moment: Empathy and active listening.


To empathize means to put yourself in their shoes to try and understand what they might be feeling.


To engage in active listening means to reflect on what you hear them saying to make sure your understanding is correct.


The goal at this point is not to try to change their perspective on their situation, but to show that you genuinely understand what they are thinking and feeling. Through feeling empathized with, heard, and understood, your teen will be more willing to let you in and allow you to help them.


2. Externalize the Anxiety and Talk Back to It: Talking back to anxiety is designed to call it out for what it is – a false alarm.


So, instead of your teen thinking, “I can't handle things right now,” they can say to themselves, “Anxiety has made me think that this is too tough to deal with, but I don't have to listen to its tricks.”


3. Team Up With Your Teen: Rather than blaming your teen for their behavior, try making anxiety the opponent that you'll work together to defeat.


For example, if your teen wants to avoid an event due to social anxiety, an ineffective way to respond would be, "You can't just miss the event because you are upset. Stop being so stubborn, and come with us." A more effective approach would be, "I see that anxiety has gotten you stuck. Let's see how we can work together to stop anxiety from making you miss the event.”


Getting To The Root of Your Teen's Anxiety


From a neuroscience perspective, anxiety is a symptom due to a dysfunction in the brain’s electrical activity. There are many types of brain dysfunction that can cause anxiety. This is why it is imperative to start with functional brain imaging (EEG brain mapping) to identify the specific regions of the brain that are initiating the hormonal changes and fight-or-flight state.


Below is a diagram of the different brain regions and common symptoms that occur when a specific region gets “stuck” in a significantly over-active state.


At the Brain Performance Center we use EEG brain mapping to objectively measure brainwave function. An EEG brain map can identify electrical dysfunctions in the brain that are often the root cause of anxiety. Once we know what physiology is causing the anxiety, we can personalize nutritional, behavioral and neurofeedback interventions to return the brain activity to a normal state.


Neurofeedback brain training is a non-invasive, highly effective, non-pharmaceutical way to normalize the brain activity at the root of anxiety. It is a powerful form of biofeedback, using EEG sensors on your scalp connected to sophisticated audio/visual feedback exercises. Your brain actually controls the exercises on a video screen. Neurofeedback can accurately target a specific brain region and retrain brainwave dysfunction back to its normal state. It’s like physical therapy for the brain.


Contact the Brain Performance Center for more information about EEG brain mapping and Neurofeedback brain training for anxiety, ADHD, depression, insomnia and more. Training can be done at one of our three centers in Southern California or in your home with our state-of-the-art remote neurofeedback equipment rental program. Email us at Info@BrainPerformance.com or call us at 800-385-0710.


Here is a real testimonial on anxiety from one of our clients.