Anxiety is a normal and expected response to a threat. It’s what helps you notice danger and keeps you safe until a threat passes. Threats are not just about physical safety. Threats can include conflict at home, deadlines or expectations at school, or fitting in with social groups.
Some anxiety is necessary, even helpful. It’s what motivates people to take action or work hard to meet a goal. However, too much anxiety or anxiety that feels out of control can take a toll on health and well-being. Anxiety is the most common mental health problem in young people. About 3% of Canadian children or youth experience an anxiety disorder. Yet anxiety may be dismissed in young people because they are still learning about the world and are naturally a little more anxious than most adults. Even if the worries or fears seem small from an adult perspective, those feelings are very real for the young person.
WHEN IS ANXIETY A PROBLEM?
Anxiety might be a problem when it is stronger than you’d expect, lasts much longer than you’d expect, or comes up often or feels out of control. It can cause problems with sleep or appetite, disrupt schoolwork or learning, and create other challenges. These anxiety problems show that someone might need help learning to cope with anxiety. Unhelpful anxiety can be harmful even when it doesn’t meet the criteria of an anxiety disorder, so any young person who experiences unhelpful anxiety may see the benefits of mental health help and support.
WHAT IS AN ANXIETY DISORDER?
Anxiety disorders are a group of mental illnesses involving excessive anxiety. Anxiety disorders can be very difficult, yet they aren’t always taken seriously. Anxiety problems that start in childhood may get worse over time. Even when anxiety problems appear to clear up on their own, people who experienced anxiety problems in childhood are more likely to experience an anxiety disorder later in life. Early treatment and support not only help children and teens get back to their usual lives, but they also build resiliency and teach skills that can last a lifetime.
Here are anxiety disorders that young people may experience:
- Generalized anxiety disorder—Excessive worry that comes up often and is difficult to control.
- Panic disorder—Recurring panic attacks and fears about having more panic attacks. (A panic attack is a period of sudden, intense fear that peaks quickly.)
- Agoraphobia—An intense fear of having a panic attack outside the home and being unable to leave or escape, leading to avoidance of spaces like school, public transportation, or large crowds.
- Phobias—Intense and unrealistic fears of a specific object, situation, or event.
- Social phobia or social anxiety disorder—An intense fear of social situations.
- Separation anxiety disorder—Extreme anxiety when separated or expecting to be separated from parents or caregivers.
- Selective mutism—Consistently refusing to speak in specific situations.
COMMON SIGNS OF ANXIETY PROBLEMS
- Refusing to go to school, participate in other activities, or see friends
- Difficulties at school, like problems concentrating or speaking in class
- Becoming very upset when parents or caregivers leave
- Often seeking reassurance that everything will be okay
- Avoiding specific things, like dogs, or situations, like large crowds
- Becoming very upset over minor problems or conflicts
- Expressing a lot of concerns or asking a lot of “What if…?” questions
- Difficulties sleeping well or eating well
- Physical complaints like stomach aches, headaches, shakiness, or dizziness
- Having panic attacks more than occasionally
Some of these signs are not unique to anxiety disorders. If you notice these signs, it’s a good idea to seek help from your doctor or mental health professional.