You are surely familiar with the term anxiety. You may even be using that term when referring to your own experience. However, it is more than likely that you are not doing so in a positive manner because you don’t like the way anxiety makes you feel. Be assured that no one likes to feel anxious, and yet we all experience anxiety from time to time because anxiety has an adaptive function and therefore it contributes to our survival as a species. Anxiety is a natural and normal physiological response to stress, to a danger, or a threat. It’s our body’s way of letting us know that something isn’t right and that a certain situation is requiring our full attention. Usually, this normal state of arousal disappears when the threat that triggered it goes away.
Things get more complicated when the anxiety response becomes overwhelming and persistent to the point that it severely interferes with daily activities. When this happens, we may be dealing with what is referred to as an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are different from feelings of anxiousness or nervousness. They are characterized by excessive fear and anxiety in the absence of real danger or threats. Anxiety disorders can worsen over time and cause you to avoid certain places or situations that may trigger these negative responses. There are different types of anxiety disorders, each can affect someone physically and psychologically in various ways.
Anxiety Disorder Types and Symptoms
1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – GAD involves being excessively and constantly worried about anything related to daily life activities (i.e. relationships, friends, school, academic performance, etc.) Physical symptoms associated with GAD are restlessness, nervousness, fatigue, inability to focus, and sleep disturbances.
2. Panic disorder – In this case, excessive anxiety occurs in waves characterized by recurrent panic attacks that combine physical and psychological distress. During a panic attack, you may experience the following symptoms:
Shaking or trembling
Feelings of shortness of breath/rapid breathing
Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or faint
Numbness or tingling
Chills or hot flashes
Nausea, chest, or abdominal pains
Fear of losing control
Fear of dying
3. Phobias, specific phobias – Involve excessive, irrational, and persistent fears of specific objects or situations that are usually not harmful, such as darkness, bugs, fear of flying, or being in an elevator, etc. People are aware their fear is excessive but they can’t overcome it and often go to extreme lengths to avoid what they fear.
4. Agoraphobia – An irrational and intense fear of being in public spaces where escape may be difficult or embarrassing, or where help might not be available in the event of the onset of panic symptoms. Such public spaces include:
Using public transportation (i.e. subway, bus, train, airplane)
Being in open or enclosed spaces
Standing in line or being in a crowd
Being outside the home alone
The intensity of the fear is disproportionate to the actual situation and causes a great deal of problems in daily functioning. If left untreated, agoraphobia can become so serious that a person may not be able to leave their house anymore.
5. Social Anxiety Disorder – Someone who suffers from social anxiety disorder experiences extreme fear, anxiety, and discomfort about being humiliated, embarrassed, rejected, or looked down upon in social interactions such as public speaking, meeting new people, or eating and drinking in public.
6. Separation Anxiety Disorder – A person suffering from this disorder experiences excessive fear and anxiety when separated from someone they are very close and attached to.
Other Related Disorders
There are other mental disorders that do not formally fall into the anxiety disorder category, but that are regarded as being closely related to it because extreme fear and anxiety are part of their core symptoms. Among those you will find:
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – It may develop in people who have experienced or have witnessed a traumatic event that caused them extreme emotional distress. These can include a serious accident, abuse, a natural disaster, or an attack of some sort that may have threatened their or someone else’s life, caused serious injury, or death.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – OCD occurs when a person has recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas, and sensations (obsessions) that drive them to adopt certain repetitive behaviors (compulsions) such as checking on things, cleaning, washing hands, counting, tapping, and repeating certain words in order to reduce anxiety.
If you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, know that you are not alone. Were you aware that anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorder in the United States, with 42.5 million people who experience an anxiety disorder in any given year? And did you know that anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders of childhood and adolescence, with nearly 1 in 3 adolescents (31.9%) who will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder by age 18? It’s also interesting to note that all anxiety disorder subtypes are more frequent in girls than boys. You see, you are not alone.
But what if after reading these lines, you feel you may be experiencing the symptoms of an anxiety disorder but you’ve never talked to an adult or a professional about it? What should you do?
First and foremost, remember that you’re in good company with many other adolescents who go through similar difficulties. This means you should never feel ashamed or embarrassed about what you feel. Instead, make room for self-compassion and self-care.
The practice of meditation, yoga, and deep breathing will give your body and mind that deep sense of inner peace and long-lasting relaxation state you’re yearning for. Apps like Insight Timer are great resources to assist you in these practices.
#2 – Take care of yourself.
Your body and mind have the capacity to feel peaceful and cope adequately with stress anxiety. For this to happen, they need 3 simple things: enough sleep/rest, healthy eating habits, and plenty of exercise. Stay away from caffeine and energy drinks that are powerful stimulants, they will only increase your level of anxiety.
#3 – Educate yourself.
Being prepared and feeling informed will create a sense of security and preparedness for your symptoms and how to better manage them.
#4 – Keep a Journal
Writing down your feelings and thoughts may help you reflect on your concerns and explore healthy options. It can also be calming to write your objectives, reminders, and to-do’s down so that they don’t linger in your mind.
#5 – Spend plenty of time with those you love.
Being surrounded by people you enjoy being with is a very effective way to feel supported, secure, less upset, and anxious about things. Talking to someone who listens will make you feel understood and more capable of coping.
#6 – Pay attention to the good things in your life.
Choosing to adopt a positive attitude is a great way to keep your mind off the things that make you feel stressed and anxious. Your brain cannot both worry and think positively at the same time. It’s just not wired for it.
#7 – Get support.
If you feel your anxiety and worry are getting out of control, then it is essential that you reach out for help. The first thing you should do is reach out to a trusted adult, whether it be a parent, caregiver, family member, teacher, or school counselor. Confide in them and tell them how you feel and that you need their help and support. They will listen to you and will know what to do to get you the support you need, possibly with a professional whose job is to support preteens and teenagers who go through difficult times as you are.
What should I do if a friend is suffering from an anxiety disorder?
Written by Violaine Guéritault, Ph.D.
It may be that you are not the one suffering from an anxiety disorder but that a friend or a family member you care about is, and you would like to give them support. If that is the case, here are a few suggestions to be there for them:
Be the compassionate and understanding ear they need – What would make you feel better might be very different from what they need to feel better.
Always be gentle and reassuring in your voice, ask them how you can best help them (i.e. “What do you feel you need right now?”)
Sometimes, a calm and reassuring presence without offering solutions can be all they need to feel safe and to open up to you. Do they need advice and guidance, or do they need a compassionate and nonjudgmental ear?
Actively listen to them, show them you are completely focused on them by making eye contact, avoiding interrupting, clarifying what they say, encouraging them, and making them feel validated in their feelings.
Don’t pressure them to share. No matter how willing you are to help, sometimes people don’t feel comfortable sharing their experience. In this case, don’t pressure them to do so and instead share with them a list of resources such as websites and helplines (see above section) that are totally confidential and that they can reach out to for support.
There are also several other resources you can use to reach out for help and where you will find immediate support.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline:1 (800) 662-4357
This helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, treatment referral and information service for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance disorders.
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