Understanding Teen Anxiety And Addiction

Teenagers often experience extreme feelings, such as anxiety, as they develop and learn how to regulate their emotions. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 31% of teens have an anxiety disorder. In the absence of effective interventions and protective factors, teens sometimes turn to unhelpful coping strategies, like the use of alcohol and drugs, to handle their anxiety.

When people use drugs to address symptoms of anxiety, they most often use depressants such as tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, benzodiazepines, and opioids. Regardless of the substance used, adolescence is an especially dangerous time to begin using substances, as the brain is continuing to develop.

Anxiety and addiction in teens can become a combined concern when they use substances to cope with anxiety.

Why Are Teens So Anxious?

There are a variety of reasons that a particular teen might experience anxiety, including:

  • Early difficulty with separation anxiety
  • Low ability to self-soothe
  • Experiencing major life disruptions, such as divorce or moves
  • Increased academic pressure
  • Increased prevalence of bullying
  • Shifts in puberty onset toward younger ages, especially among girls
  • Challenging economic conditions
  • Feeling unaccepted due to their sexual orientation

When determining if anxiety is starting to interfere with a teen’s daily life and is becoming problematic, you can watch out for specific signs and symptoms.

These include:

  • Excessive fears and worries
  • Restlessness
  • Continual nervousness
  • Difficulty relaxing
  • Being withdrawn

  • Muscle tension and cramps
  • Stomachaches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Trembling

Additionally, some symptoms of anxiety are more extreme and can indicate the development of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health concern among adolescents, with symptoms generally presenting in pre-teen and early adolescent years.

Why Do Teens Start Abusing Drugs?

Teens begin using drugs and alcohol for a variety of reasons and in a variety of situations. Research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that people most often use drugs for one of four reasons:

  • To feel good
  • To feel better
  • To improve performance
  • To satisfy curiosity and social pressure

Teens are susceptible to each of these motivating factors and are particularly vulnerable to the intense nature of peer pressure that occurs during adolescence.

Some common risk factors related to teen drug use include:

  • Family history of substance use
  • Supportive or apathetic parental attitudes toward substance use
  • Parental substance use
  • Lack of or inconsistent parental monitoring
  • Family rejection of sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Association with substance-using peers
  • Lack of school connectedness
  • Low academic achievement
  • History of sexual abuse
  • Mental health issues (including anxiety and depression)

These risk factors don’t determine whether a teen will begin to use drugs, but they can increase the possibility.

Why Substance Abuse Makes Anxiety Worse

One common response to the experience of anxiety is to engage in an activity that helps the person avoid the feeling of anxiety. When this happens, anxiety is temporarily relieved and then becomes even more prevalent and often more severe over time as this strategy is repeatedly used.

The use of alcohol and drugs is one way of avoiding psychological distress and tends to follow this same pattern. The person using the substance gets an immediate sense of relief but then finds themselves depending on the substance more and more as anxiety increases in frequency and intensity over time. This can lead to a recurring cycle of teen anxiety and addiction that is difficult to interrupt.

Dangers Of Teen Substance Abuse

The adolescent brain is especially tuned in to social cues and pressure. In addition, teen brains aren’t very good at considering long-term consequences and often respond impulsively in the moment.

One of the areas of the brain that continues to develop during adolescence is the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is where we exercise self-control and put emotional responses in perspective to make good decisions. Because teens are developing this part of their brain, they are especially susceptible to making decisions that could have long-term negative consequences.

When it comes to drug use, this characteristic is especially concerning because research shows that the earlier someone begins using substances, the more likely they are to develop a substance use disorder in adulthood.

The adolescent brain is also susceptible to other risky behaviors related to drug and alcohol use, such as:

  • Using more than intended
  • Using more dangerous drugs
  • Engaging in risky sexual and other behaviors while using substances

Treating Co-Occurring Disorders In Teens

Just as a teen might experience anxiety and substance use in various ways, there are many approaches to treatment. Teen treatment options exist on a continuum of care that includes outpatient therapy, intensive outpatient programs (9 or more hours per week), and residential treatment.

Each option, and others in between, is matched to a variety of factors, including the severity of the anxiety and substance use, the ability of the teen to maintain sobriety outside of a controlled environment, and their willingness to participate.

There is significant evidence to support that treatment programs that primarily utilize behavioral therapy approaches are more likely to successfully treat co-occurring anxiety and substance use.

For teenagers, it is also important for the family to be as involved in the treatment process as possible. Family involvement is an important factor in making lasting behavioral changes.

Teens also enter treatment for different reasons than adults and, therefore, require treatment approaches that understand their developmental perspective and unique motivations for change.

Recovery Is Possible

The most important aspect for anyone seeking effective treatment, including teens, is a treatment approach that considers the individual, their developmental stage, life circumstances, and unique needs. Teen anxiety and addiction are treatable concerns, and healthy recovery is possible.

Contact a treatment provider today or explore our online directory to find out more about your available treatment options.