Anxiety And The Teenage Brain

Posted on October 19th, 2015


Take a moment to remember a time when you were scared for your physical safety.

In that moment, changes occurred in your mind and body. This is often referred to as “fight-or-flight mode,” and it’s your body’s natural way of trying to survive when faced with a threatening situation. Maybe you found yourself reacting more quickly. Perhaps your heart began pounding, you felt a rush of adrenaline, and your breathing became faster. In a life-or-death situation, this mode is essential for our survival.

However, in our modern day lives, the fight-or-flight mode can be activated by a false alarm, such as when our social, academic, or occupational lives feel threatened. Due to the ongoing cognitive development of teenage brains, they actually get false alarms more often than adults. For example, a teen who is feeling the social anxiety of embarrassment in front of his friends will quickly go into fight-or-flight mode and will keenly feel those changes in his mind and body. Unfortunately, in these modern situations, this physical reaction often interferes with our coping functions, as opposed to helping us.

As science’s understanding of the brain advances, we are realizing more and more that teenage brains actually process and respond to anxiety-inducing situations differently than adult brains. The higher brain functioning area of the frontal cortex does not finish developing until an adult reaches his or her mid-twenties. As a result, an adolescent brain relies more heavily on the rapid, automatic reaction of the amygdala to discern the threat of a situation, whereas an adult brain uses more of the slower but higher brain functioning of the frontal cortex. The amygdala not only helps us with rapidly processing emotions and discerning threats, it also plays an important role in the release of hormones. Relying on the amygdala in an anxiety-inducing situation means it’s more likely for a teen to inaccurately interpret a situation and have a stronger hormonal response, which greatly affects conscious thoughts and behaviors. This explains why an anxiety-inducing situation can make teens feel like their whole world is ending.

So what can you do to support your teen to better manage their reaction to anxiety?

1. Encourage him to take a break. Our bodies and brains need 15-20 minutes to reset back to normal after our fight-or-flight mode has been activated. A teen’s perspective about a situation will be more rational and less emotional after a healthy break from what was triggering his anxiety.

2. Help her re-balance her body’s reaction with physical activity. When our bodies are in fight-or-flight mode, we need an outlet for all of that nervous energy that has been triggered. Exercise can help our body let go of tension and tell our mind to relax.

3. Know that his overreaction is difficult for him to control, and try to be understanding. When he is in survival mode, his amygdala and strong hormones might be overwhelming his rational thought process. Mindfulness activities, such as journaling and talking to a friend, can help a teen use his frontal cortex more and get a reality check from a safe place.

4. Give your teen some warm fuzzies. Anxiety causes us to release a stress hormone called cortisol. The countering hormone is oxytocin, which is also known as the “cuddle hormone.” Demonstrating a caring and loving attitude towards your teen can go a long way in helping to reduce her anxiety. You can also encourage her to spend time with a best friend, or involve herself in a comforting activity. Feeling good about herself or her life will help release oxytocin and reduce anxiety.

5. Model healthy anxiety management to your teen. Teens learn more from parents by their examples and actions than from lectures and other verbal communication. If you are managing your own anxiety in healthy ways, then your teen will be better equipped with ideas for coping and will also be more likely to respond well when you give a suggestion.

Teenage years are stressful, and the increased responsibility of adulthood is also a source of great anxiety for many people. As a parent, if you can help your teen develop healthy ways to cope with anxiety during adolescence, you will be giving him or her powerful tools for a successful young adulthood.

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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Los Gatos Teen Therapy provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.