Family Learning Center sign at Muir Wood


Phobias and Addiction

In a search to escape their phobias some teens may turn to substances, resulting in significant damages.

A hairy, black spider wriggling across the floor in the middle of the night, an elevator packed to capacity on a journey to the 200th floor, or a snarling, growling dog at the end of a very thin leash could all produce a spike of fear. These seem like harbingers of an episode that could end with injury or death, and the brain responds by flooding the body with chemicals that prepare the muscles to either fight or flee. When these reactions are triggered by an episode that does actually smack of danger, they’re considered healthy or even beneficial. But when these feelings of intense fear are out of proportion to the episode in question, they might be triggered by a phobia, and sometimes, teens lean on addictive substances in a mistaken attempt to get relief.

Teen girl on computer

Specific Phobias

When a teen’s fears are triggered by one thing, it’s known as a specific phobia, and Boston University suggests that this condition impacts one in 10 teens. Some young people develop these problems quite early in life, and they may spend their early childhood worrying about things that hide under the bed or strangers lurking behind closed doors. These same phobias may come with them to adolescence, or teens may transition their fears to another object or situation.

Common targets for specific phobias include:

  • Dogs
  • Insects
  • Germs or contamination
  • Bridges

Teens who experience specific phobias like this may react with intense fear when they’re asked to interact with the target of their phobias. Even thinking about the target might cause them to freeze in place, or break out in episodes of sweating and trembling. These teens tend to have good insight, as they know their reactions are out of proportion to the dangers they face due to the trigger, but they might also find it impossible to move past their worries.

Social Phobias

While some teens develop phobias that revolve around a specific thing or place, some develop concerns about their engagement with their peers or with authority figures.

Those teens may have a social phobia, and their issues are just a little different than those who have a specific phobia. Teens with social phobia may be intensely shy and worried about embarrassing themselves in a public situation. They become so convinced that they’ll do something that will spark ridicule that they become unable to do anything in public at all.

In school, this can lead to disaster, as these teens might find it difficult to:

  • Answer questions in class
  • Give presentations
  • Talk to peers in the hallway
  • Ask a teacher a question
  • Write on the blackboard
  • Type on the computer in front of a teacher

Teens like this might see their grades dip, or they might become so concerned about their performance that they stop going to school altogether. With each day they miss, they may find it harder to return, as they may be convinced that they’ll have to explain their absences to their peers, and the prospect of talking might fill them with dread. An article in American Family Physician suggests that 1 to 5 percent of all school-age children have some sort of school refusal syndrome, and while the need to stay home can stem from many triggers, it’s easy to see how phobias might play a role.

Addiction Concerns

Teens with phobias may know that their thoughts are somehow strange and out of proportion, but they might also be completely unable to understand how to move past their concerns. For some, being afraid is a sort of lifestyle they’ve always had, and they know of no other way to live. For others, just thinking about facing their fears can fill them with so much dread that they can’t see how any solution is possible. Sometimes, substances of abuse seem like a good pathway to normalcy.

Teens forced to face their fears might find that opiate drugs wrap them in a mantle of comfort that can allow them to move forward without reacting to their fears. These teens might also find that benzodiazepine medications slow down their fear responses, so they can handle situations that once seemed intolerable. Even alcohol might seem like a good solution, especially for those with social phobias, as this drug can make teens seem chatty and relaxed.

All of these substances, however, can leave behind chemical damage in the brain, and as this damage adds up, teens might find it difficult to control their impulses.

They may need higher and higher doses of drugs to achieve the same level of bliss, and their fears might remind in the background, just waiting to spring back into life when the teen is sober. In some cases, addictions can even make phobias worse. Teens who drink at parties due to social phobias, for example, might place themselves in compromising positions and then refuse to go to school the next day due to the teasing that’s almost sure to come their way.

Real Relief

An article in Addiction Treatment suggests that about 20 percent of people with social anxiety have substance abuse issues, and these people tend to begin a life of substance use earlier than their healthy counterparts. Other studies have found a link between specific phobias and substance abuse as well. It’s clear that something must be done to help, so that teens don’t develop these problems and take them into their adulthood.

Sometimes, parents can provide gentle coaching that can make a big difference. They might praise the child for participating in events that once made the teen nervous, and they can encourage open conversation about how the teen feels and coping techniques that might work. Parents who have their own histories with anxiety might have good tips and tricks to offer, and sometimes, a team approach is all that’s needed to help a teen get better. But there are times when teens need a little more help. If the situation has progressed with no improvement for months, and if the teen is beginning to self-medicate with drugs, therapy might be a better choice.

In a treatment program, teens can learn to handle their cravings for addictive substances, and they can learn more about how to soothe their anxiety without leaning on substances of abuse.

This is the kind of help we provide at Muir Wood, and we can even provide your teen with the educational support that can help them to stay on track with their coursework as they heal. If you’d like to enroll your child in our innovative treatment program, please call. We have admissions counselors standing by.