Anxiety and Adolescent Girls in the age of COVID
Anxiety disorders stand as the most common of mental health disorders for adolescents. For adolescents, the statistical likelihood of any mood disorder is around 3%-5%; until, that is, by mid-adolescence when females become twice as likely than boys to be diagnosed with a mood disorder, like anxiety. Mid-adolescent females as a solo population become comparable to the overall percentage of adult anxiety disorders, which is 20%, reaching 14%-20%. As for a lifetime prevalence of an anxiety disorder specifically, beyond the adolescent and teenage years? Females continue to be more commonly affected than their male counterparts.
Understanding anxiety in adolescent girls is crucial for their health and wellness in every possible way, especially during this stressful time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Adolescent females in particular experienced increased anxiety symptoms, including panic and somatic symptoms, throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic onset. You can be a critical line of support for the adolescent girl in your life who might be struggling with anxiety.
Symptoms of Anxiety in Adolescent Girls
Anxiety in adolescents often goes overlooked because symptoms of anxiety go under-considered, typically being written off as stress. Stress and anxiety can absolutely go hand in hand, especially for an adolescent. Adolescents today are under tremendous amounts of pressure from different areas of their life from academic pressure to social pressure and the pressures caused by their generation’s social media driven world.
Physical Symptoms vs Internal Symptoms
All of this external stimuli clashes with emotional difficulties that already present. Regulating, let alone identifying feelings is extremely challenging for adolescents. Younger adolescents typically express anxiety through physical symptoms whereas older adolescents can better articulate their thoughts.
Physical Symptoms of Anxiety for Adolescent Girls Can Include:
* Jitteriness including an intense startle response
* Sick to her stomach, nausea
* Headaches, increased dizziness
* Difficulty sleeping or chronic nightmares
* Fidgeting behaviors like knee bouncing or nail-biting
* Frequent need to urinate
* Change in appetite
Internal Symptoms of Anxiety for Adolescent Girls Can Include:
* Not wanting to see friends or attend social events
* Feeling lackluster about attending extra-curricular activities
* Showing no interest about previously held passions or interests
* Overwhelm about just the idea of going to school
* Angry outbursts
* “What If…?” fears about more and more topics
* Highly critical statements about themselves
* Easily frustrated or overwhelmed by simple tasks
* Sudden return to early childhood fears or protestations, like a fear
of spiders or not liking certain foods again
* Change in music taste, clothing choices- it’s more than a phase
* Refusal to do classwork
* Lying about classwork, tests, grades
* Dip or change in grades
* Receiving more detentions from teachers
* Acting out at school
Decreasing mental health in adolescents is most commonly seen in isolation, pulling away from friends, losing interest in hobbies or what is for them “normal” life, disruptions in normal emotional regulation, and difficulty in day to day functions.
Supporting Adolescent Girls with Anxiety
Consulting a physician, therapist, or psychiatrist is always recommended as a first step in order to receive a professional diagnosis and recommended treatment plan. At home there are many ways to support your adolescent. Curiously, some professionals recommend trying not to focus on the anxiety itself. Instead, reframing thoughts, validating emotions, and mind-body connection are suggested.
Validate Their Emotional Experiences
As parents and/or loving caregivers it’s our inherent nature to want to fix or soothe our adolescent’s worries or challenging feelings. What is needed most is validation. For our younger adolescents, validation that everything is okay, everything is safe, is critical. Soothing physical touch paired with positive validation and affirmation is helpful. Older adolescents need a different kind of validation- the kind that comes from not giving advice or trying to fix it. Simply validating an older adolescent’s frustrations and fears by agreeing with their feelings, allowing their emotions to be what they are, will leave them feeling supported. “That sounds like a hard day”, “It sounds really important to you”, “You’re right that is awful”- are encouraging statements. Never tell an adolescent with anxiety to just “relax” or that what they’re worried about “isn’t a big deal”.
Bring Them Back To Center
Anxiety triggers the fight or flight response, flooding an adolescent’s body with adrenaline and cortisol. All of that anxious energy can feel like it gets “stuck”, causing a feeling of separation between the mind and the body. Mindfulness activities like using breathing techniques, listening to guided meditations and guided visualizations, grounding activities like a barefoot walk on the grass, or your adolescent’s preferred kind of physical relaxation, help restore the mind-body connection. In so doing, the nervous system becomes regulated and provides relief while bringing your adolescent “back to center”.
Living with anxiety or not, our adolescent girls always need to hear loving and positive affirmations from the parents or care givers. Anxiety creates a hyper focus on the worst parts of oneself. Through every fear or expressed self-criticism, there is room for a positive affirmation. Focus on their strengths and abilities, their assists and their quirks, and their endless potential.
As always, its your honored opportunity to be your adolescent’s cheerleader in every which way.