When you struggle with anxiety, it makes you want to quit. Let’s take the example of Brandon, who has really bad test anxiety. Perhaps he wants to go to college to become a teacher. So, Brandon signs up for classes and starts going. It is great at first because he is only listening to lectures and writing papers. However, midterms start. Brandon has such terrible test anxiety that he cannot sleep the night before, studies ineffectively, and feels as if his mind is blank during the exams. His stomach aches the day of the test and he is too nervous to eat. This becomes so unbearable that he starts to say to himself, “Maybe I don’t really want to teach after all. I was much happier when I was working in retail.” So, to avoid the horrible feelings of anxiety, Brandon quits.
Here is the problem Brandon now has: Because the test anxiety caused Brandon to quit, he now is more afraid of tests than before. As miserable as it is, pushing through a fear is essential to overcoming it. When things calm down again, Brandon then wishes he had pushed through because he really dreams of becoming a teacher. Since Brandon quit though, school seems even bigger and more scary than it did the last time. Each time Brandon repeats this pattern he is making his situation worse.
When your anxiety makes you want to quit or avoid a situation, just remember that if you give in, the situation will actually become more scary next time. Sometimes this is really hard to do, so getting a little help is necessary.
One thing I have teenagers do who have anxiety about a situation is to make a list. We write down the thing they fear most, then something slightly less scary, and something even less scary until we reach a level that isn’t scary at all. For Brandon it might look like this:
- College Finals
- College Mid-terms
- An online mid-term or final
- A college quiz
- An online quiz
- A practice exam on the school campus
- A practice exam done at home
Brandon would then be instructed to start with a practice exam done at home. He would repeat it until it was associated with absolutely no anxiety. Next he would take a practice exam on the college campus. He’d repeat this process until it no longer caused any anxiety. He would continue to work his way up the list.
Let’s say Brandon successfully worked his way all the way to number 2, taking a college mid-term. When he got to this one he was unable to complete it because of his fear. If that happens it is important to break it down into a smaller step once again. Brandon might need to visualize taking a successful college mid-term on a daily basis and then try again.
If your teenager is racked with anxiety about a specific situation, try to help them push through. Do not let them quit unless the situation is dangerous to their health. We build fortitude by pushing through emotionally challenging situations. Adults who lack fortitude also lack success: don’t let this be your teen.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT