Supporting An Anxious Teen, Part 2

young woman's face in black and white

This week we continue our discussion of how to best support teens struggling with anxiety. As the rate of anxiety and mood disorders in the U.S. continues to increase each year teens are especially vulnerable. Below are some tools parents can use to help support teen to grow into healthy and well -adjusted young adults.  If you missed Supporting an Anxious Teen, Part I, click here.

Keep Moving

Physical exercise helps bring oxygen to all parts of the body, including the brain. This is why physical activity is critical to healthy brain development and performance. Brain studies also give us a window into the important role physical activity specifically plays in the developing brain of adolescents. We now understand being physically active can improve cognitive and academic abilities.

This is also a time when activities, such as engaging in group sports or working out at the gym, start to lay the blueprint for later adult life. Starting good habits early gives teens the ability to continue as they age to prioritize their physical health.

Physical activity also positively impacts hormone levels. This sets the stage for better sleep as well as a decrease in mood swings and mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety.  The more intense the workout the more hormones are release, such as dopamine (our “feel-good” hormone) and serotonin (our sleep regulating hormone). Encouraging teens to try to get at least 30 minutes a day of a combination of strength training and cardio is a great goal.

Connect With Nature

Studies have shown that just being in nature lowers the stress hormone, cortisol, and increases feelings of happiness and wellbeing. In a 2019 study researchers found a direct link between time spent outside in nature and lower levels of cortisol in the body. The findings showed that simply taking a short walk outside for 10-20 minutes significantly reduced cortisol levels. The most dramatic reduction of cortisol occurred when participants spent 30 minutes outdoors.

We know that high cortisol levels can lead to hormonal imbalance, mood and sleep disorders and numerous other negative side effects. Researchers found that not only spending time in nature greatly reduce cortisol levels, but it had long lasting effects as well. Individuals who spent a weekend away in nature compared to those who spent the weekend relaxing indoors had lower cortisol levels by the end of the weekend, but also continued to have these lower cortisol levels for weeks after the experience.

For teens, prioritizing time outside may mean taking a walk outside each day with a family member, doing homework on an outdoor patio when the weather is nice. Some teens may choose to join a hiking club, row crew or play outdoor sports. It could also mean prioritizing time as a family to go camping or hiking. A simply and free way to spend more time in nature is to sit out in the backyard or a public park.



Share Gratitude

Research has shown that expressing gratitude helps to reduce anxiety. For teens, their world can feel like it oscillates from one extreme to the next. One day your teenager may feel wonderful and the next it all comes crashing down. Some of these extreme feelings can be part of normal teenage life. However, providing an opportunity for your teen to remain grounded through gratitude can be a helpful anchor. Make it a family practice to share what you are grateful for each day is an easy way to encourage the practice.

That said, it may not be easy to convince your teen to engage in this activity!  Below are a few pointers to help families introduce a gratitude conversation or ritual into the day:

Keep it Short and Sweet: There is no need to make this a deep or long conversation. If your teen just shares a simple gratitude and then the conversation moves on to other topics count it as mission accomplished!

Provide Reassurance and Acceptance: Let teens identify a gratitude without judgment or commentary. Resist following up with many questions. Whatever your teen chooses, just allow it to be and provide validation.  If your teen wants to elaborate and share more they will.

Use Prompts: Having a hard time getting your teen to engage in finding gratitude? Below are a few helpful prompts you can use to get the conversation started.

What is something you didn’t like, but ended up being glad happened?

What experience are you glad is over?

What is your favorite movie/book of all time?

Aside from the phone, what other modern invention would you miss most if it didn’t exist?

What activity has had the biggest impact on you/your life right now?

Which one of your peers do you most admire and why?

What person in your life do you think trusts you the most?