Anxiety that Goes Beyond Normal Worries

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“I don’t know if I studied enough,” commented the teenage girl, “I just never can seem to get enough time to study. I barely got in five hours to study for the test last night but that should be enough, shouldn’t it?”

Her mother nods in agreement but is getting concerned about her daughter’s behavior. Her daughter is so easily distracted and always seems to be seeking reassurance that everything will turn out ok. Even when her daughter gets an A she views it as a failure if she didn’t get all of the questions correct.

Her mother has also noticed that her daughter is often irritable and is having trouble sleeping. The question that has been bothering the mother is whether all of these behaviors are a normal part of adolescence or if she should be more concerned. After all, teenagers are supposed to be moody and irritable, right?

Worrying about grades and doing well on tests normally causes some anxiety in adolescents. However the anxiety being displayed by the teenager above goes beyond typical anxiety. The teenage girl is displaying many characteristics of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

GAD occurs when adolescents display worry across a variety of situations. Many times the distress extends across a range of everyday activities such as excelling in school or performing well in sports. This distress can drive adolescents into extreme studying or practicing a sport for hours on end in a quest for perfection.

The anxiety in GAD is a bit different from other anxiety related disorders like phobias. This is due to the anxiety being generated from within rather than from a trigger, like the presence of snakes can trigger someone with a snake phobia.

Parents can spot GAD when adolescents excessively worry about everyday activities for a prolonged period of time. They tend to seek out reassurance as a way to deal with their worries. Many times adolescents with GAD will not realize that their fears are overly exaggerated, unlike adults with the disorder. Other symptoms parents should be on the lookout for include restlessness, inattention, irritability, fatigue and difficulty sleeping.

If an adolescent is displaying many of these symptoms for a long period of time, then treatment should be sought out. A common therapy treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy. This type of therapy focuses on teaching the adolescent ways to identify when she is worrying excessively and to use various techniques to help manage her anxiety. Early treatment for GAD has shown signs of reducing future occurrences of the signs and symptoms of the disorder.

Families play a particularly important role in the treatment of GAD. Adolescents need their parents to help them master and use the anxiety management skills that they learn in therapy. Parents can also provide support that is crucial as adolescents struggle in dealing with the disorder.

If normal worries start to become exaggerated, parents should seek out help for their adolescents. Mental health therapists can make a difficult situation more manageable and give adolescents tools that they can use in the future if their anxiety returns.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on November 16, 2014.

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