When news reporter Holly Kammier was thirteen years old she experienced her first panic attack. Within a short period of time, her father threatened to hurt her, her parents filed for divorce and she found out she had two older brothers who were put up for adoption. She began to feel dizzy and confused as her life quickly spun out of control.
“I had spent the past seven years publicly pretending there was nothing wrong with me. Now, as I treaded across my school campus, my eyes glassed over, my body seizing up, and heat waves washing over me as I desperately tried to control my outward appearance, I willed myself to stay quiet and keep moving.
I was an imposter, a fake. I didn’t belong. Denial was the only option. If I could just keep pretending everything was all right, maybe I could fool everyone into thinking I was normal.
The more I fought it, the worse things grew. The attacks hit me as often as once an hour. I began passing out between classes. Tremors and tension headaches took their toll. Fellow students would wake me from a hard sleep, and I’d find myself curled up in a ball in the hallway outside of class, my head resting on a backpack full of stiff books.”
Kammier’s experience, taken from her book It Could Have Been Holly Wood, is similar to those of many other teens and young adults. According to a survey conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, 5.9 percent of teens develop “severe” anxiety disorders like Kammier’s. Severe anxiety disorders are characterized by persistent or severe fear or worry in situations where most people wouldn’t feel threatened.
However, 25.1 percent of teens age 13 to 18, experience some level of anxiety, according to the same survey. Dr. Lindsay Stewart, licensed clinical psychologist from the Child and Adolescent Mood and Anxiety Treatment (CAMAT) program at the University of Miami says anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and a moderate amount of stress can actually be beneficial for performance.
“Just think, if you weren’t stressed at all over a test, you probably wouldn’t bother to study for it at all,” Stewart said. “Stress can become problematic, however, when it is persistent or when it leads to frequent anxiety, worry avoidance or unhealthy behaviors.”
Stewart says that teens often feel stressed when they perceive the demands placed upon them exceed their ability to cope.
“The causes of stress differ from person to person,” Stewart said. “Some teens spend a lot of time stressing over social situations or dating, while others stress more about school and performance. Kids nowadays also worry about their parents losing their jobs, or even losing their homes.”
Parenting expert and author Ann Douglas from Ontario, Canada refers to today’s teens as “Generation Stress”. Whether it is academic pressure, extracurricular activities, relationship problems, or family struggles, teens are experiencing a greater amount of stressors than in the past. According to a study by Reuters Health conducted at the University of Michigan, one in every three teens feel stressed on a daily basis and nearly two thirds of teens feel stressed at least once a week.
One of the largest stressors that affects today’s teenagers is the presence of social media and technology. According to the Kaiesey Family Foundation, American youth between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours per day using electronic devices, including smart phones, MP3 players and computers.
In addition, there is a direct correlation between compulsive behaviors and increased smart phone usage, according to a study by University of Worcester psychologist Richard Balding.
“Smartphone use is increasing at a rapid rate and we are likely to see an associated increase in stress from social networking,” Balding told the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology Conference in Chester, England.
Experts say these can provide a lot of cyber experiences that cause stress in teens as they lose the ability to communicate effectively in face to face situations, which is essential in building trusting relationships. Cyber bullying is another stressful consequence of social media in the lives of teens.
Additionally, school pressures are mounting as colleges and universities are increasing their admission standards and high school students are finding it more difficult to get in to a good college.
Applying to college was a simple process for baby boomers 50 years ago, but now colleges are sending record numbers of rejections. Standford University, for example, reported an admission rate of just 9.5 percent for the class of 2012, down 12 percent from five years earlier.
Such pressures can lead to anxiety disorders such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and Social Phobias. Kammier suffered from a Generalized Anxiety Disorder, coupled with Panic Disorder.
“Lots of different things, good and bad, began triggering my attacks,” Kammier said. “Getting really excited about a boy asking me out could trigger an attack as easily as getting a bad grade or someone saying something harmful,” Kammier said.
Many teens, especially girls, also experience stress from peer pressure and the extreme pressures that society puts on young people to look a certain way.
As a child, Broward General Hospital Rehabilitation Specialist Leslie Feldman underwent frequent surgeries because she was partially blind and deaf. She was also diagnosed with Alopecia, a loss of hair. Feldman, who now has a Masters degree in Exercise Physiology, said kids made fun of her because she couldn’t see or hear.
Feldman was also involved in gymnastics from a young age. When she was fifteen years old, she became bulimic.
“I was under a lot of stress for competition, because I always had to look a certain way,” she said. “At the time, my weight seemed like the only thing that I could have control over. I didn’t even realize I had a problem then. I just thought purging when I ate too much was what I had to do to stay in shape for my sport. My parents were in denial and I didn’t get help until I was in college.”
As Feldman’s story illustrates, one of the most difficult issues is that often teens don’t realize when they’re experiencing anxiety and they don’t have the necessary coping skills. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADDA), only one in three adolescents seek treatment for their disorders.
Additionally, the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) found that in 2005, 25 percent of college students reported they have “felt so depressed it was difficult to function,” and 21 percent of the students reported that they “seriously considered suicide.”
Stewart says there are warning signs, which can help indicate when stress is becoming problematic.
“When teens are overstressed, they may start to experience frequent anxiety or worry, have difficulty concentrating, or find themselves avoiding activities or responsibilities,” Stewart said.
Teenagers sometimes even experience what we call somatic symptoms of anxiety, such as muscle aches, stomachaches, or irritability. In severe cases, such as Kammier’s, symptoms such as dizziness, blurred vision, an internal buzzing feeling, nausea, confusion, hot flashes and shallow breathing are common.
“Excessive amounts of stress can even lead to unhealthy attempts to cope,” Stewart said. “For example, some teens turn to food and either overeat or under eat, while others turn to alcohol and drugs.”
Stewart says that it is important for teens to learn good coping skills now, so they are better able to cope with increasing demands as they get older.
“Good ways to cope with stress include talking to parents or a school counselor for support, journaling, eating healthy, exercising and staying active, taking breaks and doing fun or relaxing activities (listening to music, going bowling), etc.”
Both Feldman and Kammier said finding good psychiatric counseling from trained medical professionals was the best treatment for them.
Feldman said she worked a lot on her self esteem, learned to say no and learned how to be more assertive. Kammier said her anxiety disorder actually made her more determined to be successful. She went to UCLA, graduated at the top of her class and became a television reporter.
Feldman now teaches others how to take control by teaching smoking cessation and emotional eating classes at Broward General Hospital.
Both women learned they were stronger, smarter and more capable than they gave themselves credit for. They urge all teens to acknowledge their stress and anxiety issues and to seek help.
Whether that means taking 10 slow deep breaths, taking a relaxing bath, writing a list of things you are grateful for or seeking medical assistance, the most important thing is to realize you are not alone and to take care of yourself.