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Understanding anxiety – for young people

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Fear is an emotion we have in response to a real or perceived threat, whereas anxiety is the anticipation of a future threat. We all experience anxiety when faced with stressful situations, like just before a sporting match or an exam. This is normal and it’s our body’s way of preparing us to act in difficult situations. Anxiety can actually help us perform better by helping us feel alert and motivated. But people with an anxiety disorder find that their anxiety gets in the way of their daily life and stops them from achieving their full potential.

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health problems experienced by young people. They are characterised by excessive fear and problems associated with this fear that happen a lot of the time, feel overwhelming and interfere with daily life.  Different situations or objects can cause different types of anxiety disorder, but they can all be treated. 

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

Physical symptoms of anxiety can include:

·         a racing heart

·         faster breathing

·         muscle tension

·         sweating

·         shaking

·         ‘butterflies’

·         feeling sick in the stomach.

Anxiety might also involve:

·         persistent worrying and excessive fear

·         being unable to control the worries

·         being unable to relax

·         avoiding challenging situations

·         being socially isolated

·         withdrawing from friends and family

·         having trouble concentrating and paying attention

·         feeling irritated

·         poor sleep

·         problems with work, social or family life

·         panic attacks.

What are panic attacks?

Panic attacks can occur as part of any anxiety disorder but not everyone with anxiety problems will experience them.

During a panic attack, a person may be suddenly overcome by strong fear and experience physical symptoms of anxiety, like a pounding heart, sweating, difficulty breathing, shaking, feeling dizzy or feeling sick. Panic attacks are short (about 10 minutes) and usually feel overwhelming. Someone experiencing a panic attack might feel like they’re having a heart attack or an asthma attack, or they might feel like they’re losing control.

Common anxiety disorders

There are different types of anxiety disorders. Some common anxiety disorders are:

·         Agoraphobia: Intense anxiety about using public transport, being in open spaces, being in enclosed spaces, being in a crowd or being alone outside of home.

·         Generalised anxiety disorder: Excessive worry about a variety of things, such as work or school performance. Someone experiencing generalised anxiety disorder may feel that their worries are out of control, feel tense and nervous most of the time, have trouble sleeping or find it hard to concentrate.

·         Social anxiety disorder: Intense anxiety in social situations due to fear of embarrassment or judgment by others. This often leads a person to avoid social situations, such as talking in class, going to parties, being the centre of attention or meeting new people.

·         Separation anxiety disorder: Intense anxiety about being away from close attachments, or excessive worry about harm coming to close attachments. 

·         Panic disorder: Repeated panic attacks and fear of having another panic attack. 

·         Specific phobias: Intense fear of a particular situation or object (like small spaces or spiders) that leads a person to avoid the situation or object.

 Ways to overcome anxiety

There are lots of things you can do to manage your anxiety:
  • Look after yourself – eating well and having a regular sleep pattern is good for your mental and physical health
  • Exercise – regular exercise can help you feel less anxious and improve your mood
  • Get to know your thinking patterns – there are heaps of apps that can help you keep an eye on the thoughts that are more common when your anxious, there is also evidence that some positive self-talk (like ‘I can do this’) can be helpful
  • Learn some relaxation skills – regularly practising breathing and relaxation can really improve your mental wellbeing. Some people find that practising mindfulness, reconnecting with country or doing things that help them stay grounded can also help. 
  • Don’t avoid – while it is understandable to avoid situations that make you feel anxious, over time this can have a big impact on your life. Learn some skills (self-talk, relaxation, breathing) then slowly put them into practice when you are in a situation that makes you feel anxious. The realisation that you can manage anxious situations can make a big difference in your life and boost your confidence and motivation as you continue to overcome your anxiety.
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Related problems
Many young people experiencing an anxiety disorder may also experience symptoms of depression. Some young people may also drink alcohol or take drugs to ease the discomfort or make them feel more confident. But relying on alcohol or drugs can make things much worse in the long run and cause long-term physical and mental health problems.

It’s also a good idea to talk to someone that you trust about how you are feeling. You might choose to talk with your family or friends, a teacher or coach, or your mob or Elders. They can help you to work out what is going on and what support or help you might need.

If your anxiety continues without any improvement you can get help from your GP (general practitioner) or a mental health professional. 

There are mental health professionals at headspace centres and eheadspace (online and phone support) who can help. Treatment might involve counselling to help you learn anxiety management skills, practise relaxation techniques and gain confidence to cope in stressful situations. 

For some people medication is helpful as well. The good news is that most young people with anxiety respond well to treatment. With support you can continue to achieve your work, study or personal goals. 


For more information, visit headspace to find your nearest headspace centre or call or contact eheadspace on 1800 650 890 or eheadspace.org.au.

The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.

Last reviewed 28 February 2017