ADOLESCENT ANXIETY: Traditional Therapies Used to Treat Anxiety May Be Ineffective and Even Harmful

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by Dr. Zach Petter, D.C.

About one in five adolescents in the U.S. experiences anxiety at a level that could be diagnosed as an anxiety disorder. A recent article from The New York Times, “Why Teenagers Act Crazy,” suggests that therapies like stimulate drugs Ritalin and Adderol “could have a negative impact on the normal developmental trajectory of anxious teenagers.”

In the article, Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, discusses a gap in adolescent brain development between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is the part of the brain that controls a person’s fear response, while the prefrontal cortex assesses the source of the fear.

In teenagers, due to the fear circuit (amygdala) maturing more quickly than the area of the brain responsible for assessing the response (the prefrontal cortex), their ability to modulate emotions is reduced, which means they have more difficulty suppressing learned fear responses. This phenomenon makes adolescents more prone to anxiety disorders – conditions where a person perceives fear in absence of a threat. The study suggests that because this predisposition to anxiety during adolescence is a normal part of development, traditional behavioral and drug therapies are ineffective in treating adolescent anxiety. Friedman says in the article:

“The brain-development lag has huge implications for how we think about anxiety and how we treat it. It suggests that anxious adolescents may not be very responsive to psychotherapy that attempts to teach them to be unafraid, like cognitive behavior therapy, which is zealously prescribed for teenagers. Parents have to realize that adolescent anxiety is to be expected, and to comfort their teenagers — and themselves — by reminding them that they will grow up and out of it soon enough.”

“Parents have to realize that adolescent anxiety is to be expected, and to comfort their teenagers — and themselves — by reminding them that they will grow up and out of it soon enough.”

The article also raises the concern that the rise in prescriptions of stimulants for teenage anxiety could ultimately do more harm than good. In the article, Friedman does not make specific conclusions, but he provides food for thought and notes the fivefold rise in prescription sales for stimulates between 2002 and 2012. He also points out the connection between stimulant medications and “fear conditioning.” The concern raised by Friedman is whether prescription stimulates so often prescribed to teens and adolescents might impair their ability to suppress learned fear (a normal part of adolescent development) and make them more fearful adults.

Dr. Zach Petter, DCDr. Zach Petter and his wife Amanda own the Brain Balance Achievement Center of San Antonio. The center helps children reach their academic, behavioral and social potential through a unique drug-free, whole-child approach. The Brain Balance Program utilizes customized sensory motor and cognitive activity plans, coupled with nutrition guidelines to address the root cause of most learning and developmental disorders. The San Antonio center is located at 1742 N. Loop 1604 E. Suite 121. For more information and additional resources, call 210-620-7378 or visit www.brainbalancecenters.com. You can read Richard A. Friedman’s New York Times article, “Why Teenagers Act Crazy,” online at www.nytimes.com.

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