What’s Behind the Huge Rise in Teen and Young Adult Anxiety?


Some time ago, a therapist friend sent me a link to an article about the dramatic rise in teen and young adult anxiety and panic attacks. I’m not a therapist, but this certainly doesn’t surprise me.

A thorough article in the NY Times delves into the subject and possible reasons behind the crisis. The article points out that the rise in anxiety, which is often accompanied by depression, can lead to suicide.

As the article points out, “For many young people, particularly those raised in abusive families or who live in neighborhoods besieged by poverty or violence, anxiety is a rational reaction to unstable, dangerous circumstances.” What I found scary is how low anxiety is on the scale of some urban teachers’ priority list.

“If you go to a public school in a struggling urban area, teachers will talk about drugs, crime, teen pregnancy, violence,” comments Philip Kendall, director of the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Temple University in Philadelphia. “When you start to talk about anxiety, they’re like, ‘Oh, those are the kids we like!’ ”

On the other hand, according to the piece, “Teenagers raised in more affluent communities might seemingly have less to feel anxious about. But Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who has studied distress and resilience in both well-off and disadvantaged teenagers, has found that privileged youths are among the most emotionally distressed young people in America. ‘These kids are incredibly anxious and perfectionistic,” she says, but there’s “contempt and scorn for the idea that kids who have it all might be hurting.’”

Is this increase in anxiety real? “While it’s difficult to tease apart how much of the apparent spike in anxiety is related to an increase in awareness and diagnosis of the disorder, many of those who work with young people suspect that what they’re seeing can’t easily be explained away.”

Yeah, it’s real.

Okay, enough quoting from the article. Unless you’ve been unplugged or living in a bomb shelter for the past few years, it’s pretty easy to see that teens (and many others, for that matter) are experiencing much higher levels of emotional distress — including anxiety. So is there one sole reason that lies behind all this turmoil? Probably not, but I think I may know of at least one major contributing factor to an increase in anxiety: expectations.

“Today’s young people can feel under enormous pressure to live up to all of these expectations and more, lest they be marginalized to an irredeemable level of social acceptance.”

Here’s what I mean. At the risk of sounding nostalgic, today’s young people are under mega-tons of pressure compared to when I grew up in the 1960s. True, I was anxious too. But I believe my eventual anxiety disorders (OCD, panic disorder, and agoraphobia) were more a combination of genetics and biology than just trying to meet overwhelming expectations.

What do I mean by “expectations”? Here are a few examples found in so-called developed societies:

  • Wearing the “right” clothes
  • Achieving academic success
  • Participating in after-school activities
  • Having a boyfriend or girlfriend
  • Experimenting with sex, drugs, and alcohol
  • Trying to meet parents’ and other caregivers’ expectations
  • Owning and understanding an array of digital technology
  • Being informed on celebrity and entertainment fronts
  • Looking physically attractive

This list could go on and on. Are these expectations new? Not most of them. What I think may be new is the level of self-expectation involved. As human beings, we are capable of cranking up the pressure on ourselves in astonishing fashion, especially where our sense of acceptance by others is involved.

Today’s young people can feel under enormous pressure to live up to all of these expectations and more, lest they be marginalized to an irredeemable level of social acceptance.

So can teen and young adult anxiety be put back in its proper place? Yes, but it takes more effort than ever before — and more support as well. How can this happen? Here are a few suggestions to help an anxious teen or young adult in your life:

Ensure that your young person knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that you love and accept him or her unconditionally. “Unconditional love” may sound like a worn out phrase, but it is still as powerful as ever when put into practice. It is the foundation for healthy personhood. By the way, you may also need to fill that void in someone’s life who’s simply not getting it in their own home. Make it your calling.

Help the young person decide what’s really necessary to pursue and what’s not. A young person may want to participate in soccer, band, Scouting, hunting, dancing, fishing and everything else on the extracurricular menu, but it’s just not healthy. Better to be the mean person now than see that young person emotionally implode later on.

Model a balanced life yourself. Folks, we’re talking here about making some hard choices. Most people want to become “all they can be,” and that often means working overtime and picking up supper on the way home. Get your own life back and you will help to create a less anxiety-prone environment for your kid to come home to. I know — it’s easier said than done. But almost everyone can make a choice or two toward a more balanced life —you just have to make some difficult choices on the priorities list. (Could it be that you have too many self-expectations?)

Get professional help. Sometimes you just have to step back and invite a trained professional to help you see some potential missing strokes in the bigger picture. My suggestion is that family therapy may be especially helpful in guiding adults and young persons toward a less anxious place. Working together, the home can become a safe haven from the incessant winds of expectations.

Teen and young adult anxiety is only bound to increase. But you can take steps to help ensure that the loved ones in your life have the resources to find peace in the midst of the storm.

Please share some reasons you think teen and young adult anxiety is on the rise, along with anything you’ve found helpful in combatting it. 

If you or someone you know needs help, please see the list of resources we put together just for you. While we are not equipped to offer support, we are more than happy to pray for you! Feel free to get in touch with your request. 

*originally published on the author’s blog, An Anxious Kind of Mind

Never miss a story.

Sign up and get monthly updates of our latest features.When you do, you'll receive our FREE e-book with a story-gathering checklist.

We HATE spam. So you won't get it. EVER. Powered by ConvertKit
Randy Fishell
Randy Fishell

RANDY FISHELL is the former editor of Guide magazine—a weekly publication for young people. He has written hundreds of editorials and articles and authored several books. Randy is a member of the National Alliance on Mental Health and lives in Smithsburg, Maryland.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

About Us

Speak the Words Communications is a faith-based media and communications platform with a desire to tell stories with purpose. Our aim is to inform, equip and inspire through our media.

We aspire to help our clients harness the power of storytelling through various mediums.

Books in our store