Teen stress and anxiety is a growing epidemic. One-third of adolescents report feeling anxiety to a significant degree, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and 62 percent of college students said in 2016 that they feel “overwhelming anxiety;” up from 50 percent in 2011, based on a survey from the American College Health Association.
But it is an epidemic that often goes overlooked, because “people don’t see it as a legitimate illness,” Robin H. Gurwitch, Ph.D., professor and clinical psychologist at Duke University Medical Center and the Center for Child and Family Health and member of PEOPLE’s Health Squad, explains.
“Anxiety is probably one of the biggest mental health concerns, period, and yet we’re much more likely to say we’ll look at depression and post-traumatic stress disorder,” she tells PEOPLE. “We don’t give as much attention to stress, maybe because all of us experience anxiety in one way, shape or form. But when it rises to a level where it interferes with daily functioning, it becomes a problem.”
Sources of Stress
For teens, the list of possible stressors is long — from puberty to family problems to social media to gun violence — but it typically starts in school.
“The American Psychological Foundation found that the most common reports of stress among teens is in school, followed only by stress related to ‘what am I going to do after high school,’ and ‘will I get into the colleges that I want to,’ ” Dr. Gurwitch says.
And there’s more to school-related stress than just classwork. High schoolers are dealing with anxiety around their relationships, which is often exacerbated by social media.
“Social stress is a real thing,” Dr. Gurwitch says. “They are thinking about how they fit in with peers, peer pressure, bullying, relationships. But also, that attachment to their phones may be associated with increased levels of stress, because they think that if they miss a call or miss a text, and if their phone dings at 2 a.m., then they better get up to answer it or that person may move on to someone else and not me. It adds new problems.”
Some teens also have to deal with extreme stressors like absentee parents or racial discrimination, Dr. Gurwitch adds. “There’s some groups that sadly are dealing with extreme stressors … ‘If I get stopped by the police, what will happen?’ These are added stressors to certain groups in our country.”
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