The Complete Guide to Teen & Adolescent Anxiety
Today, more and more teenagers are being diagnosed with anxiety disorders and OCD than ever before. This is, in part, due to current events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in larger part, this is because more is known about these disorders, meaning there are more opportunities for diagnoses and ample treatment options available.
Feelings of stress or anxiety are a normal part of life. When symptoms of anxiety become overwhelming, or begin to affect quality of life, a young person might be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. The most common anxiety diagnosis is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) which is marked by persistent anxiety that is out of proportion with actual circumstances. Other anxiety diagnoses include: Agoraphobia, Panic Attacks, Selective Mutism, Separation Anxiety, Social Anxiety, and Specific Phobias.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a very specific diagnosis that can resemble an anxiety disorder. OCD usually presents as chronic recurring thoughts and compulsions to repeat the same behaviors over and over. Those who are presenting with OCD can display symptoms in many different ways, and the compulsions can span across a wide range of different behaviors and thoughts. The common thread in these behaviors is that the thoughts and actions are recurring, compulsive, and they impede daily activity. For a young person, these behaviors can be significant, even dangerous, to their development.
At Mountain Valley Treatment Center, we specialize in therapy and treatment for teens with OCD and anxiety. We also provide support for the residents’ families. Let’s explore some of the therapies and treatments available for teens at Mountain Valley, in addition to resources from our experienced staff that can help families of adolescents with OCD and/or anxiety.
Available Therapies and Treatments at MVTC
At Mountain Valley, we offer many different treatments that are empirically supported by medical and mental health professionals. In addition to these modalities, residents are also participating in academic programming and recreational activities that support their therapy and individual development. These are some of our treatment modalities.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a structured form of therapy in which the client, family and therapist work together as partners to assess, define, and treat problems. It is important to emphasize that CBT has been developed on the basis of both research and clinical practice. CBT can be considered an “evidence-based” approach, as there is ample scientific evidence that the methods that have been developed actually produce change.
In CBT, clients and families learn to examine and respond in new ways to the elements that maintain anxiety and OCD-related problems, including their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. CBT involves a combination of psychoeducation (the “C”) and utilization of skills (the “B”), to best address the fear and avoidance related to debilitating anxiety and OCD.
Psychoeducation is designed to enhance client and family knowledge about anxiety and OCD. Our psychoeducation focuses on subjects such as: the anxiety maintenance cycle, biological underpinnings of anxiety and OCD, and family system theory. Mountain Valley residents are provided a wealth of psychoeducation on these topics and the terminology associated with beginning a gradual exposure therapy-based treatment plan.
During CBT sessions, residents will explore their anxiety and learn what thoughts, behaviors, or beliefs might be causing this stress. Participants will explore these “cognitive distortions”, set goals for treatment, and develop new skills and strategies to overcome these barriers. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps clients better understand their behavior and the motivation behind it. The client then learns how to implement new skills and coping strategies to address difficult situations.
In addition to engaging in CBT work while at Mountain Valley, therapists also teach residents how to continue using these skills upon leaving Mountain Valley. Our goal is for residents and their families to learn how to utilize their CBT skills outside of Mountain Valley after their 90 days of treatment. We want residents and families to create an environment of healthy risk-taking and this involves residents challenging themselves and continuing to utilize CBT skills.
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is the most empirically supported and thus the “gold standard” in treating OCD and anxiety disorders. As a whole, ERP involves residents identifying fear and anxiety-producing situations, objects or thoughts. The client then chooses to engage in gradual exposure (the “E” of ERP) to that fear and those things that produce anxiety, avoidance and behaviors. Deliberately and sensitively, these exposures decrease the client’s emotional reactions and they learn new and more functional ways of responding to anxiety.
While avoidance and isolation tend to be the responses of individuals struggling with anxiety and OCD, Response Prevention helps our residents engage their discomfort in more functional ways and thus have more enjoyable and productive lives. ERP is a way for residents to learn to approach, rather than avoid, situations and material that they find anxiety-producing. Whether the anxiety is more situational (e.g., talking in front of the class), or generalized (e.g., doubt and apprehension about the future, or difficulty with uncertainty), the treatment is similar, and the process the same – to work towards reducing an individual’s anxious response, to increase their functioning, and to create opportunities for clients to learn new ways of experiencing situations and material that had been associated with their anxiety.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a unique, empirically-based intervention that utilizes acceptance and mindfulness processes as well as commitment and behavior change to produce psychological flexibility. The goal of ACT is to increase psychological flexibility and adjust behavior and emotions to serve one’s values and desired outcomes. Therapists support residents to establish less rigidity so that they can view negative thoughts mindfully instead of avoiding or pushing these thoughts away.
ACT helps our residents to live full and meaningful lives while also accepting difficulties and painful experiences. Through ACT, we teach that life is not about avoiding but, rather, engaging. Incorporating ACT principles into our exposure therapy also helps our residents to harness a greater willingness to enter into seemingly challenging and difficult exposure situations. Clients learn to be open to the experience of an exposure and to not just tolerate it, but to fully experience it and learn from it.
Therapeutic Recreation combines nature, community, and fun for therapy. The intent of utilizing recreation in the therapeutic process is to improve an individual’s physical, social, spiritual, and psychological well-being through kinesthetic activities. Recreational activities help support more traditional talk therapy by utilizing different tools. For example, some recreational activities might encourage healing by allowing residents to participate in group adventure or team building activities to develop trust or resiliency while enjoying outdoor activities.
Expressive Arts Therapy integrates components of Mountain Valley’s clinical programming, thereby serving as a therapeutic multi-tasker. Utilizing clinically-informed elements of art, drama, music, movement and related activities, these group activities provide a unique format for immersion into CBT and exposure concepts. For the Mountain Valley clinical program, expressive arts therapy organizes the education and concepts of acceptance-based ERP into a program of expression and play.
Expressive Arts Therapy prompts spontaneity and creativity which offers direct, supportive, and playful challenges to the anxious / OCD / perfectionist mindset. Expressive Arts Therapy creates opportunities for our young people to access regions of the brain associated with artistic activity that is not accessed by more traditional therapeutic formats. It offers opportunities for safe exploration of personal challenges through more tactile techniques than talk therapy. Expressive arts also offers the opportunity of fun and movement, often engaging group members resistant to more conventional methods of therapy.
Equine Assisted Therapy
Equine Assisted Therapy has become increasingly more acceptable in treating young people with anxiety. Working with a horse during the therapeutic process can create an opportunity for clients to stay present and focused on the task at hand. Horses can sense danger and respond with a heightened awareness, which typically leads to a change in their behavior and possible attempts to get away. Clients who struggle with anxiety can relate to this ability to sense danger cues and respond in a heightened way.
Processing challenges through a horse’s behavior can be easier for certain clients than speaking directly about their own personal experiences with anxiety. Another benefit of using equine-assisted psychotherapy in the treatment of anxiety is helping clients practice vulnerability in a safe environment. As clients learn to interact with the horse and try new things, they are being asked to step out of their comfort zone with the help and support of the therapist and the horse.
Equine-assisted therapy has been shown to help individuals build confidence, self-efficacy, communication, trust, perspective, social skills, impulse control, and boundary development.
Horses, as prey who live in herds, are very sensitive to the emotional states of those around them so they can act as mirrors for the emotional process of the humans with whom they interact. The role of equine- assisted therapy is to highlight these instances of mirroring in the moment to aid in self-awareness and growth. Horses are nonjudgmental, relational creatures with a strong grounding presence and working with them offers many opportunities to create metaphors for other issues in a person’s life. Building relationships with these animals can be a very empowering experience.
Mental Health Occupational Therapy
The roots of occupational therapy recognize the benefits of engaging clients with anxiety in meaningful and purposeful activities. The goal of occupational therapy is to focus on how ‘occupying’ the mind and body in activities influences a person’s well-being and how prescribing ‘curative occupations’ can facilitate healing.
MVTC’s occupational therapy views daily activities through a new lens. All individuals have activities that they need to participate in to maintain their well-being (hygiene, eating, sleep, etc.) and activities they want to engage in to give meaning to their life (work, school, leisure, social, etc). Anxiety can shape what activities one engages in and impacts a resident’s overall capacity to engage in those activities. MVTC works with residents to determine what activities they want and need to engage in, what the barriers are to meaningful engagement, and then provides interventions to support them in reaching their goals.
How Mountain Valley Supports Families
Family Therapy & Education Support at Mountain Valley Treatment Center is comprehensive and is integrated with exposure therapy and the clinical curriculum. At Mountain Valley, we recognize that the families of our residents need support too. Many families, especially those with children who have been suffering from OCD and anxiety symptoms for a long time, want help learning how to communicate more effectively with their children. They need education on how they have been unknowingly accommodating their children’s anxiety and OCD. And, they need assistance with their expectations during the transition out of Mountain Valley.
Many families have been able to adjust somewhat to the turmoil and strain of having an anxious child by making accommodations. This is understandable and common. This “family accommodation” or “maintenance” of the anxiety or obsessive-compulsive behaviors does not lead to long-term symptom reduction and will ultimately increase and entrench the behaviors. At MVTC, we work closely with families to educate them on how to decrease accomodations in their family life.
Learn more about how families experience Mountain Valley Treatment Center from student and parent testimonials.
How to Reach Out to Mountain Valley Treatment Center for Teens
Mountain Valley is trained to provide therapy and treatment to teens struggling with anxiety and/or OCD. We are licensed by the State of New Hampshire, Department of Health and Human Services to provide treatment and care to residents for upwards of 90 days.
We have seen firsthand how a structured environment, academics, and therapy can help teens with anxiety thrive. Request a brochure today or schedule a call with our team to learn more about Mountain Valley Treatment Center adolescent OCD and anxiety treatment programs.