Everyone gets scared or anxious sometimes; it is an important part of being human. Fear and anxiety are useful emotional responses because they can cause us to change our behavior in ways that protect us from danger. The teen years are full of situations that create fear and cause anxiety and learning to navigate through those situations is a normal part of moving through the teen years. However, sometimes those fears and anxieties can become overwhelming and all-encompassing, limiting the potential and progress of our teens. In order for parents to know when their teen’s fear or anxiety has crossed the threshold from healthy to hindering, they need a solid understanding of the biology of fear, anxiety, and phobias and how to tell when their teen is in trouble and needs help.
Fear is an emotional response to a specific situation. The emotion causes several immediate changes in our bodies that are aimed at preparing us to handle the danger at hand. These changes are also called the fight or flight response because our body is getting ready for us to either run for our life or flight for it. To do that, our heart rate increases as does our breathing. This helps get more oxygenated blood to the parts of the body that will need it most for fighting or fleeing, the arms and legs. This can cause a queasy stomach, paleness, and perspiration. All of this is our natural, healthy response to a specific threatening situation.
Fear is to anxiety as a tree is to a forest. Where fear is a direct response to a specific, immediate situation as in “something is happening”, anxiety is a generalized feeling of unease as in “something might happen”. Anxiety also serves us well from a survival standpoint as it can alert us to the potential for danger before we find ourselves in the position of having to flee or fight. It can make us more cautious and can help us avoid danger or discomfort. Anxiety, to a certain degree, is also a healthy, normal response to perceived or potential dangers.
While fear and anxiety can be healthy responses, they can also expand beyond healthy to become unhealthy, hindering, and even harmful. When fear takes on a life of its own and expands to encompass things that are not actually a direct and immediate threat, that fear becomes a phobia. Phobias are fueled by fearful emotions that are severe, extreme, and persistent and can trip the fight or flight response even when there is no direct and immediate threat of harm. Anxiety can also expand beyond what is normal and helpful to become a phobia, an anxiety disorder, or and anxiety disorder tied to a phobia.
When it comes to fear and anxiety, the primary differences between a normal, healthy response and a harmful, hindering response are the direct nature of the threat, the magnitude of the response, how appropriate the response is to the situation, and the persistence of the emotional response even after any actual threat has passed.
Teens experiencing normal fear and anxiety may need their parents’ guidance and support to get through the trials and tribulations of the teen years. But for those teens whose fear and anxiety have crossed the threshold into phobia and disordered response professional help from a mental health provider may be needed to help them learn to how to manage their fear and anxiety so they can have a normal life.