What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a word that describes feeling worried, nervous, uneasy or scared. It is the body’s response to stress.

What’s Happening in Our Bodies?

Our brains respond quickly when something stressful happens. A fast-acting release of brain chemicals prepares our body to either face stress (“fight”) or run away (“flight”) or ‘freeze’, often leading to body changes that include a racing heart, fast breathing or shortness of breath, sweaty palms, dizziness or faintness, tingly body sensations, nausea or stomach upset. This stress response can be helpful if we need to catch ourselves when we trip and fall, or outrun a bear in the woods.

Signs and symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety

Sometimes Anxiety Can be Healthy

It can motivate us to get things done well or protect us in an unsafe situation. For example, it is normal and even helpful to feel jittery before writing an exam, shy when introducing ourselves to new people or excited butterflies in our stomach when performing a solo in the school play or going to bat in the baseball finals. Just the right amount of anxiety helps us be our best selves in school, work, sports, and even when hanging out with friends.

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Other Times it Can be a Problem

For many teens, anxiety is predictable, manageable and can even be thrilling at times, like during roller coaster rides. However, there are some teens whose brains are wired in a way that are more sensitive to anxiety and even small things set off very loud anxiety alarm bells.

Take a quiz

Haley's Journey

Some People's Brains Respond to Stress in a More Extreme Way

For these people, anxiety can make everyday activities seem impossible. These teens feel so uncomfortable during regular, everyday situations, like speaking in class or spending time with friends, that they end up feeling panicked or extremely tense, restless and physically sick. For some teens, anxiety becomes so distressing that they stop doing the activities that make them anxious and in extreme cases, they stop going to school or talking to friends altogether.

If this is you, you may have an anxiety disorder and may need to get help from a professional to learn effective tools and strategies to cope. Anxiety disorders are different than normal anxiety or stress - they get in the way of daily life and stop you from feeling like yourself. Cam's Kids Ambassador, Haley Smith has shared the story of her experience with anxiety.

Haley's Video

Read her full story here

Hailey

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The Good News is that Anxiety Disorders are Manageable

There are well-studied treatments that provide relief and can help you cope with anxiety and learn how to face your fears successfully. Understanding how anxiety works can help to make the experience of anxiety less frightening and is an important step in learning how to manage it.

Resources

How Anxiety Affects Learning

Anxiety can also affect how you think.

Research has shown that anxiety can make it harder to learn new information and apply it well.

Anxiety can reduce memory and limit your attention, making it harder to stay focused and complete your work. Ongoing or “chronic” anxiety may even lead to changes in the developing brain.

For example, anxiety has been shown to affect the amygdala, making it more difficult to control emotions. Anxiety also affects the brain areas called the frontal and prefrontal cortex, affecting the way we use our executive functions in order to manage ourselves and achieve goals.

Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

While there are many different types of anxiety, often the symptoms experienced by people are similar, especially the physical symptoms. However, it is important to remember that these symptoms can be related to anxiety, but they can also be related to other things. For example, your heart rate might increase and you might be sweaty or shaky, but this could be because you went for a run, or because you are worried about a presentation you are about to do. It is important to think about what is happening and what thoughts you are having to figure out whether your symptoms are related to anxiety or not. People who experience a lot of anxiety can have physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, fast breathing, sweating, shakiness, dizziness, feeling sick to their stomach or nauseated.

There are also thoughts that are common in anxiety. A person with anxiety may worry about something happening to themselves, and have thoughts like “I’m going to mess up this presentation” or “I am going to say something embarrassing” or “I am going to get sick if I eat or touch that.” They may also worry about other people, and having thoughts like “Something bad could happen to my parents if they go out tonight,” or “My friend could get hurt if they go on that rollercoaster.”

It is important to look at both the physical symptoms you experience as well as the thoughts you have to get a better understanding of anxiety, and whether you might sometimes have some anxiety thoughts, emotions or actions.

It is normal to experience anxiety. Anxiety can help to signal to us when we might need to be careful and protect ourselves. However, if it feels like your anxiety is persisting and out of control, that your anxiety gets in the way of you doing everyday activities, or causes you a great deal of stress, frustration or unhappiness, it is usually a sign that you have too much anxiety and that you should seek help for it.

The Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada (http://anxietycanada.ca) reports that approximately 12% of Canadians will experience an anxiety disorder over a 12 month period, while 1 in 4 Canadians will have an anxiety disorder during their lifetime. Individuals aged 15 to 24 have the highest rate of anxiety disorders. About 3.4% of Canadians experience serious or chronic levels of anxiety.

It isn’t yet fully understood what causes anxiety disorders. We do know that there are a number of factors that seem to play a role including genetics, brain chemistry, life events and experiences and personality factors. For example, if there is someone in your family who has a problem with anxiety (a parent, an aunt, a grandparent), it may make you more likely to develop anxiety. However, there are many people who have a family member with anxiety who don’t develop a problem with it themselves. Stressful life events and experiences such as being bullied, school stress, parental divorce or loss of a loved one, are also thought to play a role. It is thought to be a complex mix of a number of factors that can lead to a person developing a problem with anxiety.

Sometimes our worries and worry thoughts change over time – you may be scared or anxious about something, and a year later wonder why you were ever scared about it. We may not ‘grow out’ of anxiety, but learn to manage it in better and different ways. Importantly, if an anxiety problem is left untreated it can get worse and lead to other problems so it is important to learn ways to manage anxiety and seek help and assistance when it becomes a problem.

There are many ways to get help for your anxiety. You may wish to speak to a parent or other trusted adult (e.g., guidance counsellor, coach or trusted teacher at school; family doctor or pediatrician) about how you are feeling and the types of worries you have. This person can help you understand the types of treatment available and what would work best for you. You can also look at books or websites about anxiety to find out more about anxiety and what strategies you can try to help better manage any anxiety you are experiencing. A number of books and websites are provided on this website - you can find many of the books in your library or local book store.

There are many treatments offered to help with anxiety. However, it is important to find a treatment that is ‘evidence-based’. What this means is that people who study anxiety in universities, hospitals and other health and mental health centres, have studied the treatment and found it to be significantly more effective in treating anxiety than other treatments or no treatment at all. The most commonly used and recognized form of evidence-based treatment for older children, teens and adults is Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy. This type of therapy, also called CBT, focuses on the relationship between our thoughts, emotions and behaviour.

Sometimes, when someone is experiencing significant anxiety, they may also take medication to help reduce the symptoms of anxiety. Using medication in combination with CBT can be more effective for some types of anxiety, versus using one type of treatment alone.

For more information

Kids Help Phone Anxiety Disorders Ontario Webmd: Teens Offord Centre

Disclaimer: Cam’s Kids Foundation is an information website only. We do not provide advice or diagnosis. Please consult a health professional if you think you might have an anxiety disorder.

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Signs You Might Have Too Much Anxiety

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  • Regularly feel worried or panicky for no obvious reason
  • Feel like your mind is constantly racing and you can’t slow it down
  • Constantly feel worried about everyday events or the future for no reason
  • Continually ask people for reassurance that you haven’t done something wrong or upset somebody or that you are safe
  • Try to avoid any situation that causes anxiety, such as a test or a party
  • Are always trying to be perfect – you’re afraid of making mistakes
  • Can’t sleep well or have frequent nightmares
  • Constantly worry about something horrible happening to loved ones
  • Are afraid of speaking up and asking questions in class
  • Blank out or freeze up in stressful situations
  • Feel dizzy or feel like you might faint or pass out
  • Are afraid that you might ‘go crazy’

Common Anxiety Disorders that Affect Teens

Social Anxiety Disorder

A very uncomfortable feeling in social or group situations or when expected to perform in front of others. Social anxiety is more extreme than simply being shy or introverted.

Specific Phobia

An overwhelming fear of a specific, identified thing or situation.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Anxiety symptoms associated with past experiences of extremely upsetting or traumatic events.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Intense fear of being away from a parent, home, or other trusted caregiver.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Uncontrollable worrying about everyday situations and future events. Teens with GAD have a hard time tolerating uncertainty and seek excessive reassurance.

Panic Disorder

Intense and frightening physical sensations that can be triggered by a known cause or may seem to come out of the blue.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Uncontrollable, unwanted, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that cause distress and often lead to repetitive, ritualistic behaviour (compulsions) eg. obsessing about germs leading to excessive hand-washing rituals.

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Do You Struggle With Anxiety?

To find out if you might need to see a health professional for treatment of an anxiety disorder, take an assessment:

PSYCHCENTRAL QUIZ

We are grateful for the content support of Drs. Fisher, Griffin and Walker.

Dr. Dahlia Fisher

Dr. Dahlia Fisher

Dr. Dahlia Fisher, C.Psych. is a registered clinical and health psychologist, specializing in the assessment and treatment of children and adolescents. She currently works at The Red Oak Centre, helping children cope with many psychological difficulties including anxiety and mood disorders, behaviour difficulties, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), adolescent issues and adjustment disorders.

Dr. Claire Griffin

Dr. Claire Griffin

Dr. Claire Griffin is a registered clinical psychologist in Ontario, Canada. She currently works at the Clinic on Dupont providing assessment and treatment services to children, adolescents and young adults with a range of mental health concerns including anxiety, mood and adjustment disorders.

Dr. Darlene Walker

Dr. Darlene Walker

Dr. Darlene Walker, C.Psych., is a registered clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist in Ontario, Canada. She currently works at The Clinic on Dupont providing assessment of learning disorders and other cognitive or behavioural difficulties such as ADHD, concussion or other head injuries, as well as treatment for mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, interpersonal or adjustment issues.

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