What is anxiety?

Feeling anxious now and then is a normal part of life. You might feel anxious before taking a test, when faced with a problem at work, or before making an important decision. This temporary anxiety can sometimes help you to deal with a difficult situation, motivate you to study harder for an exam, or to maintain focus on an important task. For most people, anxiety is a harmless feeling that lasts for a while and goes away on its own. However, there are a number of anxiety disorders that can impact the lives of young people, leading them to experience fear, shyness, and nervousness, and can cause them to avoid certain activities and places.

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common types of mental health problems which are experienced by people of all ages. They are mental health disorders that include extreme amounts of constant fear, nervousness, dread, or worry.

The most common forms of anxiety disorders affecting young people include:

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterised by extreme worry about a number of different events – including past, present, and future events. Youth with GAD worry about a lot of issues, including past conversations or behaviours, upcoming events, school, work, family or relationship problems, their health, their performance in academics/work or sports, and world events. People with GAD may have difficulty controlling their extreme amounts of worry, and find that the anxiety interferes with their daily life.

Panic disorder leads to recurrent panic attacks and a persistent anxiety that an attack may lead to more panic attacks or physical or psychological harm. Young people who have panic disorder may avoid going out and engaging in activities out of fear that an attack may occur. Panic attacks include feelings of intense fear and unease, along with  physical symptoms such as racing heart, difficulty breathing, dizziness, and nausea, as well as fearful thoughts.

Separation anxiety can be caused by unwillingness to be away from major attachment figures or from home. Usually the threat of having to separate from caregivers or from a physical space that feels safe leads to anxiety. While separation anxiety is seen mostly in children, it can also be experienced by teens.

Social phobia is the intense fear of embarrassment or humiliation in social situations, which may lead to shyness and a fear of doing or saying something in front of others. This may include fear of attending parties, speaking with figures in authority, or fear of speaking in public. While it is common for many teens to go through a period in which they are shy or fear social embarrassment, social phobia is more severe and can become very debilitating if untreated.

Specific phobias are intense, irrational fears of specific things or situations, for example a fear of spiders, or a fear of the dark. The fear experienced because of the situation or object is usually disproportionate to the actual threat posed. However someone with a specific phobia usually does not realise that their fears are unreasonable. Exposure to the feared object or situation leads to extreme distress, and may even cause a panic attack.

General symptoms of anxiety to look out for:

  • Feeling frightened, nervous or panicky all the time
  • Getting down or depressed
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Low appetite
  • Lack of concentration
  • Tired and irritable
  • Palpitations – when your heart feels like its racing
  • Dry mouth
  • Trembling
  • Feeling faint
  • Stomach cramps and/or diarrhoea

How does anxiety affect young people? 

20% of young people in any given year experience a mental health problem, most commonly depression or anxiety – World Health Organisation

Anxiety disorders in young people are often the result of a number of factors working together. Some of the most common causes and risk factors for anxiety disorders in youth and adolescence may include:

Genetic: Young people who have a first-degree relative with an anxiety disorder are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder than those who do not have a similar family history.

Physical: Neuroimaging studies showed that teens with anxiety disorders have atypical activity in certain areas of the brain when compared with their peers.

Environmental: Extremely stressful events, such as the death of a loved one, sudden move to a new area, the divorce of parents, or experiencing a violent crime or psychical/sexual abuse can lead to the development of anxiety disorders.

Other risk factors include:

  • Being female – women have been found to have higher rates of anxiety disorders than men
  • Traumatic events during childhood years
  • Chronic stress
  • Personalities that are prone to worrying
  • Usage of drugs or alcohol

Anxiety disorders often co-occur with other mental health disorders in young people. The most common co-occurring disorders include:

  • Depressive disorders
  • ADHD
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance use and abuse

Can anxiety disorders be treated? 

Anxiety disorder can be very effectively treated. The first step is to see a mental health professional and to make sure there is no physical problem causing the symptoms. If an anxiety disorder is diagnosed, a mental health professional can work with you on the best treatment for your individual needs.

Although each anxiety disorder has unique characteristics, most people respond well to two types of treatment: psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” and medications. These treatments can be given alone or in combination. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy, can help a person learn a different way of thinking, reacting and behaving to help feel less anxious. Medication alone will not cure an anxiety disorder, but it can be used to help to give significant relief from symptoms. The most commonly used medications are anti-anxiety medications (generally prescribed only for a short period of time) and antidepressants. The length of time you are prescribed medication will depend on your individual needs and diagnosis.

Self-Help, Coping, and Managing

There are a number of things you can do to help yourself cope with the symptoms of anxiety and to make your treatment more effective. Many people find stress management techniques and meditation to be helpful. Support groups (in-person or online) can provide an opportunity to share experiences and coping strategies. Learning more about the specifics of your disorder and helping your family and friends to understand it better can also be helpful. Following a healthy lifestyle, eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and enough sleep, and limiting your caffeine and alcohol consumption can also be helpful.

If you suspect that you or someone you know may be experiencing an anxiety disorder, seek the help of a mental health professional.