Differentiating between Fear and Anxiety in Teens

Our society often uses fear and anxiety interchangeably, although this is not always appropriate. Anxiety and fear may be interrelated, but these feelings arise for different reasons. While fear can be an adaptive response to stress, anxiety can lead to depression, low self-esteem, and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Differentiating between fear and anxiety helps teens determine the level of threat a situation has and re-establish a sense of control over their emotions. 

What’s the Difference between Fear and Anxiety in Teens? 

Anxiety and fear in teens are associated with similar physiological symptoms, like rapid pulse, muscle tension, and shortness of breath. When these physical sensations appear, it is easy to get trapped in the moment and ignore the thoughts associated with the event. This fight-or-flight mode was developed to help our ancestors respond to risk and survive encounters with predators or other dangerous situations. Although our society is no longer living in survival mode, our brain is still trained to react to these changes in our environment and daily routine. 

Fear is usually a response to a specific situation or anticipation of negative events. It is a common universal emotion that arises when worrying about life transitions, watching scary movies, or getting into a confrontation or argument. When overwhelmed by fear, people are often able to connect the dots between their triggers and their emotional response. 

Anxiety is an overwhelming physical sensation of fear that is often disproportionate in the situations it appears in. It may refer to a consistent undercurrent of fear or moments of panic. While irrational fears are known as phobias, anxiety is not considered irrational. It is usually tied to very real fears, with lower levels of threat or more intense physiological symptoms than would be expected. Anxiety is a common experience for middle school girls and can appear in a variety of ways.

Identifying Types of Anxiety: 

  • Social Anxiety refers to uneasiness, insecurity, and fears in social situations and close relationships
  • School Anxiety refers to specific fears about going to school that often reflect academic struggles, social struggles, and low self-esteem
  • Performance Anxiety refers to specific fears about public speaking, in front of a crowd or even a small group based on low confidence 
  • Social Media Anxiety refers to obsessive technology use, “fear of missing out,” and social anxiety
  • Separation Anxiety stems from bullying or attachment issues with parents, related to a fear of abandonment or rejection
  • Generalized Anxiety refers to ongoing, underlying self-doubt and hypervigilance that does not discriminate in situations
  • Panic involves sudden, intense episodes of anxiety that result in full shut-downs, but may not include general anxiety between episodes

Ways to Support Your Anxious Daughter

  1. Ask her why she thinks she’s feeling anxious in a particular situation. Phrasing it specifically encourages her to explore immediate triggers rather than feel guilty for struggling on an ongoing basis.
  2. Validate that her fears are real, not that they’re necessarily true. “I can understand why you might feel that way” or “I don’t think you are overreacting based on the fears you expressed.”
  3. Challenge their specific fears. Take a “what if?” approach. Encouraging them to explore possible consequences of their fears coming true empowers them to come up with possible solutions. Instead of staying in uncertainty, this allows them to feel more in control of their emotions and reactions.
  4. Encourage creative ways of self-expression. Talking about anxiety can reinforce the cycle of negative thoughts and overwhelming emotions. Writing, drawing, painting are an effective outlet for anxious feelings that provide a platform to discuss these feelings or distract from them. Visual arts are a great way to represent physical sensations they may feel but can’t name.

Asheville Academy Can Help

Asheville Academy is an accredited Therapeutic Boarding School for middle school girls 10-14. Our students commonly struggle with anxiety, depression, ADHD, learning differences, attachment and other emotional and behavioral issues. We teach our students the importance of persevering and not letting things dim their potential to shine. Our small classrooms encourage teamwork and collaboration with additional support for girls struggling with academic skills. This program is focused on emotion regulation and building confidence, communication skills, and social skills that will help students transition back into their home and school life.

Call 800-264-8709 for more information. We can help your family today!

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