Depression is on the rise, particularly among teen girls. Between 2004 and 2015, the risk of depression sharply increased as young people transitioned into adolescence. Six percent of boys and as high as 15 to 16 percent of girls were depressed. That works out to about a half million more depressed teens—three-fourths of whom were girls
Some fifty years ago, the medical profession as a whole did not believe that children and teens got depressed. While anxiety was recognized, it was relegated to the back burner and considered something most kids (and adults) experienced—physical symptoms like sweaty hands, a racing heart before a big game or important date, stomach butterflies before a test (particularly if you were unprepared). Today, extreme anxiety is recognized as a disorder, as is depression. Sometimes they go hand in hand, sometimes not. What’s key is to learn about the characteristics of both disorders and, in working with a therapist, determine which one fits most closely with your experiences.
We all get anxious. It’s part of the human condition. And it’s often a good thing to be concerned, even to worry. But when the worry begins to dominate your life for two weeks or more and you can’t stop, you may have an anxiety disorder. Check for the following signs:
• Desire to be “perfect”
• Need for constant approval and reassurance from others
• Easily fatigued
• Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
• Muscle tension
• Problems with sleep
“If high school is about educating students for a future life, then why is it causing such anxiety that there is an increasing number of hospital admissions for teenage suicide attempts? Why do we have to think about our adult life every day as a teenager? I’m a junior in high school, and sometimes I forget that I’m supposed to have a life as a teenager. I can’t sleep at night; all I do is stay up thinking and planning. Why are more American teenagers than ever suffering from severe anxiety? It’s because we get it into our heads that school is what’s going to make things better; we live for the future instead of actually just living.” — Natalie Jew, 164
In student surveys, teens identify academic pressure as the number-one cause of their anxiety. Some teens can manage the pressure, and while they get nervous and worry about a test or a final grade, their anxiety does not continue at a fever pitch. For other teens, the anxiety can be overpowering and spin out of control, affecting more than the classroom. You may suspect that you fall into this second group but aren’t sure. Or you may be sure but don’t know what to do. The best thing you can do is make an appointment with a mental health professional who has the training and experience to diagnose what’s going on and who may suggest some kind of therapy. The good news here is that, with early intervention, anxiety disorder can be treated, and you can look forward to a much less anxious, more productive, and happier life.
The sad fact: 80 percent of kids with a diagnosable (and treatable) anxiety disorder do NOT get treatment. That number has not changed. What’s going on? Often—particularly in rural, underserved areas—trained professionals who treat adolescents are few and far between. And there’s the stigma around admitting that a teen has a disorder that many don’t believe exists or that they feel is nothing more than a lack of willpower or just a “phase.” You know the line: in time, teens get over whatever is “ailing” them. After all, their parents did. (Maybe or maybe not.)
What Can You Do to Be Less Anxious?
On your own or at the suggestion of a therapist, here are some things you can do:
• Be more mindful. Sit quietly and focus on your breathing. Inhale. Exhale. Don’t change the pace. Just concentrate.
• Meditate. There are many schools of thought and different ways to meditate. For me, the first thing I do is find a quiet spot. Turn off my phone. Shut the computer. Take a break from the outside world. I sit in a comfortable chair with my feet flat on the floor and my head unsupported. Then I choose a word. Any word. I close my eyes and repeat the word over and over in my mind. I don’t say the word out loud. At first, your mind is going to wander. Accept that as something that happens to everyone and then get back to repeating your word. You may want to try this for five minutes at first and then build up to twenty minutes or more.
• The “Plexiglas” Box – One expert on adolescent anxiety and depression offers this message that has worked with many of his patients, including a fourteen-year-old who thinks that everyone is judging him—and not favorably. The psychiatrist suggested that his patient put himself in an imaginary “box” made of Plexiglas. The patient could see out, and his peers could see in. This “box” was coated with rubber, so when someone hurled an insult or said something that hurt the boy’s feelings, it would bounce off the rubber. The patient felt safe and protected. The doctor reported, “This imaginary shield worked wonders. After a few tries, the patient felt less anxious. He had trained himself to repel the perceived negative judgments he assumed other were making about him.”
• Focus on the good things in your life. As humans, we are hardwired to remember negative events and experiences. You might try writing down the good stuff that happens to you during the day. This has been shown to increase your sense of well-being and reduce feelings of anger, anxiety, and depression.
• Try a little humor. Early studies of humor and health showed that humor strengthened the immune system, reduced pain, and reduced stress levels. A good laugh can do wonders.
Some Cool Apps
There’s an app for just about anything, right? And there are some apps you can download to your cell, computer, or other device that guide you through some relaxation techniques or help you practice positive thinking.
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