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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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, 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.