Helping a Teen Explain Her Anxiety to Parents

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Reader’s Question

I am a 15-year-old girl, wondering if I have an anxiety disorder. Starting around 4th grade, I started doing things like repeatedly touching doorknobs and light switches, and stomping on cracks in the pavement a certain number of times. Numbers 1 and 2 were “evil” numbers, and 3 was a “good” number. I used to have to do certain actions 3 times or I got anxious. Currently, I worry about my parents dying from various fatal diseases. When one of my parents is late from work, I worry that they got in a car crash. I’ll sometimes have random thoughts about publicly embarrassing myself or hurting someone I love, even though I feel no desire to do it!

A while back I looked up my symptoms, which brought me to anxiety disorders. Since then, I have believed that I either have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Does it sound to you like I have an anxiety disorder? If so, how do I ask my parents for help? They know little about my struggles and think of me only as a worrier.

Psychologist’s Reply

I commend you for being proactive in determining what might be wrong. Extreme anxiety can be torture, and given the safe and effective treatments we have available, there is no reason to continue to suffer. As I’m sure you’ve read, GAD is defined by a general sense of anxiety most of the time. The person then attaches those anxious feelings to something going on that might explain why he or she feels anxious. In other words, the person finds the most legitimate things to worry about at the time. The problem is that, as the events pass, the anxiety remains, so it simply gets attached to other things to worry about (hence the label of “worrier”).

The theory behind OCD is that the individual often feels a sense of anxious doom, as though something bad might happen. In an attempt to keep bad things from happening, the person develops rituals, such as cleaning, counting, and checking. Worries about bad things happening to self or loved ones is common, as are worries about doing the wrong things.

I understand your confusion over the two diagnoses, as there is some overlap and both could apply to what you’ve been experiencing. The important thing, though, is simply to realize that these extreme forms of anxiety originate from problems in the brain, and not what is happening in the outside world. So, the treatment begins with improving brain chemistry, and the same medications are used regardless of whether the official diagnosis is GAD or OCD.

Because we’re talking about tweaking how your brain functions chemically, it’s important to seek a treatment from a specialist (psychiatrist). General family doctors do end up treating most cases of anxiety, but that’s simply because many people feel embarrassed going to a psychiatrist, or assume that only “crazy” people need to. Of course, treatment from a general physician is better than not receiving treatment, but let’s consider the analogy of needing treatment for cancer. Would it make the most sense to rely on one’s family doctor or seek out a specialist?

Having an anxious brain is thought to be the result of how the genes came together to create the genetically unique person you are. Frequently, such anxiety tends to run in families, although to various degrees. If neither of your parents are anxious, they may have a difficult time understanding the extent of your anxiety, and the fact that it isn’t something you can simply talk yourself out of. It sounds like you’ve done a good job researching the topic, and it might be helpful to have some of those materials present when you talk with your parents about treatment. Once you see a psychiatrist, he or she can explain to your family what anxiety disorders entail, and validate that it’s important to treat your symptoms. I’m glad that you’re seeking treatment at a young age, as I’ve known far too many people who continue to suffer needlessly for years, or decades.

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