October 6th, 2020
by: Chad Welch, Community Impact Coordinator – Education

Anxiety is a normal reaction to stressful situations, and we all feel anxious sometimes. Anxiety comes from a variety of sources like exam results, a job interview or talking in front of a group of people.

Maybe your palms start sweating, your heart races or you might feel a bit sick. This kind of anxiety is a hard-wired part of our survival instinct and it helps to tell us if there’s something significant happening. It might be a dangerous situation we need to avoid, or a task we need to get done quickly. Even though it’s can be uncomfortable, a bit of anxiety can sometimes be beneficial.

But for some teens, these intense feelings or fears can become overwhelming and can happen for no apparent reason. Their anxiety becomes unbearable and sometimes just getting through the day is seemingly impossible. Anything extra just seems to add to the anxiety. Anxiety conditions can be crippling to a young person’s life if they don’t get the support they need.

What a teen might feel

I’m sure it seems obvious, but young people experiencing anxiety feel ‘on edge’ or worried most of the time. Feeling overwhelmed, frightened (particularly when having to face certain objects, situations or events), dread (that something bad is going to happen) or panicked are also common. Their anxiety might increase when they’re asked to do something out of the ordinary or something pressure packed.

Some young people also experience a range of physical symptoms when they’re anxious such as heart racing, butterflies in their stomach, muscle tension, shaking hands or nausea. These physical symptoms might even make them worry that they have an undiagnosed medical problem, which can make their anxiety even worse. 

“My heart was beating so fast and so loud I honestly thought it was going to fail at any moment. This continued for days.” (15 year old student)

What a teen might think

Teens with an anxiety condition often describe an inability to stop thinking, and that their thoughts are often unwanted and intrusive. It seems like they can only focus on their worries. Some identify that what they’re thinking about may be irrational or silly, but that they are unable to stop these intense and sometimes unbearable thoughts. These thoughts may also be negative, which in turn can make them feel more miserable and anxious. Sometimes thoughts may include upsetting dreams or flashbacks of a traumatic event.

Some common anxious thoughts include:

  • “I’m going crazy.”
  • “I can’t control myself.”
  • “I’m about to die.”
  • “People are judging me.”

What a young person might do

We naturally want to avoid situations that cause anxiety or stress. So when a teen develops an anxiety condition, they may begin to avoid places, people or specific situations that cause them to worry. This might mean that they start to withdraw from friends or their social circles as situations may be overwhelming. They might begin to dread or avoid going to school, or work because of how they feel.

Other young people may experience urges to perform certain rituals in an attempt to relieve anxiety, find decision-making stressful, be easily startled, or have difficulty being assertive. Many teenagers who experience anxiety also find it hard to sleep and consequently frequently feel tired. A lack of sleep can also cause their symptoms to worsen, as they have had no rest or opportunity to have a break from their thoughts.

Anxiety is a part of life but it should not create an ongoing sense of fear or dread, or change the way someone spends their time. If a teen (or anyone) you know is experiencing extended periods of anxiety, and it’s changing the way they do things, then they might be experiencing an anxiety condition.

What are the different types of anxiety?

There are six types of anxiety, each with slightly different signs and symptoms.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

A person feels anxious most days and worries about everyday situations such as school, work, relationships or health for a period of six months or more.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

A person experiences unwanted and constant thoughts and fears (obsessions) that leave them feeling overly anxious. To manage these anxious thoughts they begin to do things, or use rituals (compulsions) to try to get rid of them. Even though they often know that these thoughts are irrational, the obsessions return all the time and the compulsions are hard to resist. For example, a fear of germs can lead to constant washing of hands and clothes.

Panic Disorder

A person has regular panic attacks for more than a month. The panic attacks are periods of intense fear or extreme anxiety that happen suddenly or when there is no sign of danger. Physical symptoms, like sweating, feeling short of breath, pounding heart, dry mouth, thinking that you’re dying, and losing control or about to collapse are common in panic attacks. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD can happen after experiencing a traumatic event, for example, a death, assault, an accident or disaster. A person may experience difficulty relaxing, upsetting dreams or flashbacks, and avoidance of anything that reminds them of the event. 

Social Phobia

A person has an intense fear of being criticised, embarrassed or humiliated, even in everyday situations, such as speaking publicly, eating in public, being assertive at work or making small talk.

Specific Phobias

A person feels anxious about a particular object or situation, like going near an animal, going to a social event, or receiving an injection and do whatever to avoid it. Some phobias include animals, insects, heights, and blood.

Common  Symptoms of Anxiety (source Mayo Clinic)

Feelings

  • overwhelmed
  • fear (particularly when having to face certain objects, situations or events)
  • worried about physical symptoms (e.g. fearing an undiagnosed medical problem)
  • dread (e.g. that something bad is going to happen)
  • constantly tense, nervous or on edge
  • uncontrollable or overwhelming panic

Physical

  • increased heart rate/racing heart
  • shortness of breath
  • vomiting, nausea or pain in the stomach
  • muscle tension and pain (e.g. sore back or jaw)
  • feeling detached from your physical self or surroundings
  • having trouble sleeping (e.g. difficulty falling or staying asleep or restless sleep)
  • sweating, shaking
  • dizzy, lightheaded or faint
  • numbness or tingling
  • hot or cold flashes
  • difficulty concentrating

Thoughts

  • “I’m going crazy.
  • “I can’t control myself.
  • “I’m about to die.
  • “People are judging me.
  •  having upsetting dreams or flashbacks of a traumatic event
  • finding it hard to stop worrying
  • unwanted or intrusive thoughts

Behavior

  • withdrawing from or avoiding objects or situations which cause anxiety
  • urges to perform certain rituals to relieve anxiety
  • difficulty making decisions
  • being startled easily
  • not being assertive (i.e. avoiding eye contact)

Next time we’ll discuss practical tips for supporting your teen.