Try to think of the age when you are most likely to spend the whole night scribbling graphomaniac poetry, pouring your anxiety into a battered diary you desperately hope somebody would read one day, listening to the roaring cacophony of some obscure rock band and obsessing over a sidelong glance somebody cast at you during the day. Obviously, this challenging and memorable time is adolescence. Abrupt mood changes, sulkiness, vulnerability, negativism, take-it-or-leave-it attitude are all synonyms of this transition period. A teenager seems to be an alien creature in the world of grownups: not a child anymore, not an adult yet. No wonder that the modern society looks upon teenage years with irony, condescension and a pinch of irritation brushing aside most of the concerns with a universal wisdom Theyll outgrow it. And yet, for many people these years are the hardest and the most emotionally unstable part of their life. In his enlightening article Why Teenagers Act Crazy, published by the New York Times, June 28, 2014, Richard A. Friedman, professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the Psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, explains why it is so. Friedman shows that teenage risky conduct and excessive anxiety are neurologically determined and as such need to be treated with understanding and, moreover, given undivided attention with respect to psychological therapy and medication.
In his paper, Friedman reveals the biological foundation of the teenage maximalism and moodiness in a very reader-friendly and convincing way. It turns out, that due to the asynchronous development of different brain regions, teenagers indeed perceive the world differently as they are more likely than children and adults to experience intense fear, and, moreover, they tend to remember these experiences for a longer period of time, which can even lead to anxiety disorders. The amygdala, a region responsible for fear evaluation and response, develops faster than the prefrontal cortex, which alerts humans to danger and helps assess the situation. As a result, the processes of fear-learning (formation of associations between events and specific cues and environments that may predict danger (Friedman)) and fear extinction (re-evaluating threatening cues and suppress the learned fear associations when the situation becomes safe (Friedman)) are not yet balanced in teenagers. In other words, it is easier for teenagers to feel fear and much harder to let it go than for people of other ages.
The red light keeps flashing in the teenagers brains, even when the situation that frightened, worried, or unsettled them is in the past. Though, at first sight, these extreme alertness and rancor seem redundant and unfair (teenagers feel embarrassed enough by their own awkwardness, but now we know they will also remember all the embarrassing moments long enough to torment them time after time), it is, in fact, biologically justified. Friedman argues, that if you consider that adolescence is a time of exploration when young people develop greater autonomy, an enhanced capacity for fear and a more tenacious memory for threatening situations are adaptive and would confer survival advantage (Friedman). Thus, for a teenager overreacting is quite normal and only looks crazy to those parents who are still not acquainted with Friedmans research. However, when anxiety persists and starts interfering with the young persons activities, or even dominates their life, this is a signal for psychiatric intervention and, sometimes, medical help. And this is where, as Friedman emphasizes, extreme caution is necessary. According to the research data, only 55 to 60 percent of children and adolescents with anxiety disorders responded to either cognitive behavior therapy or an antidepressant alone, but 81 percent responded to a combination of these treatments (Friedman). This means that integral approach, relying both on cognitive behavior therapy and antidepressant treatment, is the most effective solution. Another conclusion, resulting from Friedmans research, is that medical stimulants (like Ritalin and Adderall), which enhance human ability to remember things, can negatively affect teenagers who are already being vexed by all the embarrassing and awkward things they are trying to forget. These two conclusions seem to be especially important as in the modern world more and more teenagers seek professional psychological help and it is vital that this help does not make their situation even worse.
I believe, that Friedmans article is to be a must-read item on the reading list of both the teenagers and their parents. The adolescents might find it comforting to know that their abnormality is, in fact, quite normal and even at times useful. If they realize that being afraid of making new friends, public speaking, looking weird in a new outfit, getting fewer likes than usual, and other daily challenges is quite sound, they will not have to suppress their anxiety with the help of alcohol, cigarettes, or excessive gaming. It is always healthy to know that you are all right just the way you are. And here Friedmans concluding words might come in quite useful: Adolescents are not just carefree novelty seekers and risk takers; they are uniquely vulnerable to anxiety and have a hard time learning to be unafraid of passing dangers (Friedman). As for the parents, this article might help them too, as, obviously, teenage anxiety is contagious and parents can easily catch it unless they are in the know: 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 (Friedman). All in all, praemonitus praemunitus, forewarned is forearmed.
Friedman, Richard A. Why Teenagers Act Crazy. The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 June 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/06/29/opinion/sunday/why-teenagers-act-crazy.html?smid=pl-share.
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