A Toolbox for Teen Anxiety
Selected excerpts from Conquering Fear: One Teen’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety
My name is Carter Weinstein. I am an 18-year-old high school senior born in New York and raised in Texas. At first glance, I may seem like any other busy student who takes school seriously. I work hard in my classes, strive to make good grades, play sports, and participate in community service projects. I also spend time on social media and hang out with my friends.
Like many of my peers, I have been faced with a challenge that has affected me for my whole life—severe anxiety. Despite the recent focus in schools on both mindfulness and mental health, there seems to be a lack of first-hand personal perspectives. I’m here to change that.
Before I dive into some tips and tricks that help me work through my anxiety, a couple of important notes:
First, for the most part, I worked with a coach/therapist over time to identify many of these tools. Some of the things we discussed worked, and some did not. It took time to curate a good “toolbox” for my anxiety. Also, there are some small modifications I made on my own along the way that helped to really personalize the strategies for me.
Second—and super important—these tools work for me but may not work for you. I am simply presenting them so you know there are tactics out there that can help. If you choose, you can use these as starting points when you are ready to start developing your own coping strategies with a parent or counselor.
Here We Go!
First, establish your goal. Although you could decide your motivation is to completely expel any stressful events/emotions from your life, that kind of goal would almost be setting yourself up for failure. With so many life changes ahead, some anxiety is inevitable for everyone. Instead, what if your goal were to lower your anxiety response to some of your triggers?
Deep Breathing and Meditation
You don’t need any equipment besides your lungs and your mind for deep breathing and meditation, so they are always accessible! There is a proven biochemical effect that takes place in your body—relaxing the mind—when you can take calm, deep breaths. The focus inspiring these breaths is the meditation part.
As easy as it is to suggest these tactics, I understand it could be hard to employ them when your anxiety is high. There are many books and easy-to-use apps available to help you practice, so you won’t have to look far for guidance. But practice is key so that you’re ready with the tools when you need them.
Visualization is the process by which you form a mental image of something. The impact of visualization has been significant for me. Whether I am trying to pull myself out of a stressful situation, or charting future plans/success, it has been an incredibly impactful tactic.
When you feel as if you are consumed and inundated by negative emotions, imagine yourself in a place where your anxiety levels are near zero. Once you are there, open your eyes and realize that moment of panic does not last forever. There is a world existing outside of your anxious bubble. I cannot stress this enough: Whatever you are feeling right this minute, you’ll probably be feeling something different five minutes from now.
Redirecting your mind with outside influences can also work. Whether it’s a means of entertainment (movies, video games, etc.), a book or magazine, or even music, focusing on characters, plot lines or lyrics can also be meditative and help redirect negative thinking. It just takes a minute to focus on another situation to get untwisted from an anxious spiral. Distraction stimulates subconscious relaxation. When the show or song is over, I re-emerge, often with a new perspective and a cleared mind.
Exercise is essential to managing both acute and generalized anxiety. Although I play sports both in and outside of school, that’s not where my level of activity stops. Your physical activity doesn’t have to be anything competitive. If you like yoga classes or playing tennis at the local rec center, that’s great. By taking part in any kind of aerobic activity, you are not only helping your body to release stressful toxins but you are also focusing on something other than your anxiety.
When you’re sleep-deprived, everything you have to manage seems bigger and more cumbersome than it actually is. It sounds so basic, but we all need a good night’s sleep—and scientists are continuing to discover more and more reasons why that’s true. It is really hard in high school when you have so many things on your mind—so much you need to do and so much you want to do—to put your schoolwork away, get off social media, put your phone down, and go to sleep. Even when I’m exhausted, I’ll continue to scroll through TikTok.
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, teenagers ages thirteen through eighteen should average eight to ten hours of sleep per night. Set the alarm for yourself every night, guaranteeing that you will be in bed by that specific time. You may even need to put your phone outside your room so that you won’t be tempted to pick it up.
For some people, medication can become an integral part of addressing anxiety. Each one of us is absolutely unique. Many people never need medication. Others might determine with a professional that a prescription should be implemented right away or may be part of their plan down the road.
Please note that you should never take any medication without oversight of a physician and the consent of your parents or guardian. Your medical doctor (pediatrician, psychiatrist, etc.) is the only professional who can give you appropriate advice about whether or not medication could be helpful for you—and if so, which one.
Just like therapy itself, I believe the use of anti-anxiety medication should never be stigmatized. If I had atrial fibrillation (irregular heart palpitations), a cardiologist would not hesitate to put me on medication if that were appropriate. No one would ever think less of me for taking it; I wouldn’t think less of myself, either. Doctor-prescribed medication for challenges related to your mind should be just the same—no stigma, no judgment.
No Matter What You Try . . .
Don’t give up. It’s easy to try any of these coping mechanisms—or ones that you identify for yourself—once and then give up. Maybe you just don’t get the hang of meditation the first time you try it. Or you put your phone away, sleep straight through one night and still feel anxious the next day. With that said, if you cycle through a specific method a few times and you still don’t feel it has any benefit, definitely move on. You don’t want to stick with something that’s not working when a better coping mechanism could be just around the corner.
But never give up hope. You will find what works for you.
Find a partner to join your team. Whether it’s a parent, a school counselor, or a coach, having some adult in your corner will make things easier for you to navigate options and stay committed. There is no shame in seeking out help.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to talk about your anxiety. You will be shocked to find out how many people around you have similar struggles—even though their struggles might look different than yours. Sharing your journey will not only take a huge weight off your shoulders, but you may also find that your openness helps others. That in and of itself is therapeutic and rewarding.
I hope you are as excited as I am for you. I know how hard it is. I have been there. And I will be back there again. Remember, you are never alone.
Carter Weinstein is a freshman at Georgetown University and the author of Conquering Fear: One Teen’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety. Carter hopes to get this book into the hands of every incoming high school freshman or college freshman, so out of the gate, they know that everyone has struggles and they are not alone.