Anxiety is the feeling of fear or panic that we all experience at times. It can be a very physical experience, making us feel tense, shaky, dizzy, nauseous or short of breath or giving us butterflies in our stomachs, a racing heart or sweaty palms. It also affects our thoughts and behaviour, for example we tend to avoid things that make us feel anxious. Anxiety can also affect our sleep and appetite, and can make us feel down, depressed or unable to concentrate.

Problems with anxiety are very common, 1 in 6 young people will experience an anxiety problem at some point and we all have times when we feel worried,  nervous or uptight. Often there is a good reason for this, such as starting something new or difficult, doing an exam, performing or speaking in front of people, or having to tell someone something you think they won’t want to hear. Normally the anxiety goes away once the difficult situation is over, however if these feelings stick around or become stronger even when there is nothing to be worried about, that’s when anxiety can become a problem.

There are different types of anxiety problem:

Panic attacks are feelings of intense anxiety that seem to come out of the blue, they normally last a few minutes and can make people feel breathless, trapped and out of control, or as if they are ‘going crazy’ or about to die. People who have had panic attacks often become very anxious about having another one – this is called ‘fear of the fear’.

Phobias are when people feel very anxious or panicky about one (or more) specific thing, which may not be dangerous in itself or cause others to feel anxious – for example, phobias of spiders and other insects are very common, but people can also have phobias of going outside (agoraphobia), of going to school or social phobia which can have a big impact on their lives.

Generalised anxiety causes people to worry about lots of different things a lot of the time, this means they are constantly stressed and anxious and it makes everyday life difficult; people who experience social anxiety feel very anxious and self-conscious in social situations and often worry that others are judging them negatively; health anxiety is when people become preoccupied by and worry excessively about illnesses and symptoms, frequently going to the doctor, self-diagnosing or looking for reassurance online – sometimes people even experience unexplained physical symptoms which are caused by the anxiety.

  • Feeling frightened, nervous or panicky regularly and over a sustained period of time
  • Avoiding doing things or going to places where you feel anxious – school or work,  crowded places, public speaking or social activities for example
  • A sense of dread or feeling constantly on edge or irritable
  • Worrying and going over and over things in your mind
  • Feeling down, depressed or tired
  • Having difficulty getting to sleep, or waking in the night
  • Losing your appetite
  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Panicking
  • Physical symptoms such as a racing heart, fast shallow breathing, a dry mouth, shaking, sweating, feeling dizzy or faint, having an upset stomach, unexplained aches and pains, headaches or pins and needles

Fight, flight or freeze

When we are anxious our body is responding to perceived danger – it is actually protecting us, without some anxiety we would not survive. You may have heard of the ‘fight, flight or freeze response’ – this is when our body gets a surge of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol which make us more alert and ready to react to danger – it is very useful when we are physically threatened and need to run away from a bear, or rescue someone from a burning building!  It is this response that causes many of the unpleasant physical symptoms we experience when we are anxious – for example our muscles tense, we breathe faster to pump more oxygen around our body and blood gets diverted away from areas that aren’t being used – our tummy or fingers – this means we are ready to run or fight, but it also makes us feel breathless, lightheaded, shaky or tingly.

The problem with anxiety is that our body responds like this even when we are not actually in any physical danger. This can be very uncomfortable and distressing, but it is important to remember that these feelings are not dangerous, people don’t become very unwell or die of anxiety alone, and anxiety will always pass eventually.

Watch our video ‘World of Science’ for an alternative perspective on ‘fight or flight’.

Just understanding what anxiety is and why it makes us feel like this can help us to reduce its power and manage it better.

However, if you are feeling anxious a lot of the time or anxiety is beginning to have a negative impact on your life – causing difficulties with school, work, friendships or family life for example – then you may benefit from help from a counsellor, nurse, psychotherapist or doctor. You could talk to your parents/carers, GP, school nurse, youth worker, pastoral support or teacher about this – anxiety is very treatable and there are lots of things that can help.

Look at our Find Support section to find services in Cornwall and IoS.

Other things that can help to reduce anxiety include:

Physical exercise – running, walking, swimming, cycling or going to the gym can help to get rid of anxious and negative energy and help to boost our mood.

Distraction – focusing on feelings of panic, or on negative and anxious thoughts, makes them worse, instead finding something else to do and think about can be helpful. Some people find that watching TV, playing video games or a musical instrument, listening to music, or doing a puzzle or something creative helps.

Talking to someone – anxious thoughts can be very overwhelming and talking about them to a friend, parent or carer, professional or someone we trust can help to gain some perspective, break problems down, challenge anxious/negative thoughts and see things in a new light.

Relaxation – learning to relax can help us to control and reduce anxious feelings. We can do this by controlling our breathing or relaxing our bodies or we can use techniques such as yoga, meditation or mindfulness. Alternative therapies such as massage, aromatherapy and acupuncture can also be helpful for managing anxiety.

Diet – it’s also worth remembering that anxiety symptoms are very similar to the feelings we get when we are hungry and have low blood sugar. Low blood sugar and drinking caffeine can also make anxiety worse – so make sure you are eating regular healthy meals and try to avoid caffeinated and very sugary drinks.

Myth buster #1

Myth: People who have anxiety are weak.

Fact:  Everyone will experience anxiety at some point, humans have evolved to experience anxiety in dangerous situations to help us survive – it isn’t always a bad thing! Sometimes anxiety occurs when there is no real threat and starts to have a negative impact on people’s lives – this does not mean they are weak. Actually people who struggle with anxiety often show great strength and determination to overcome their difficulties.

Myth buster #2

Myth: People with anxiety should avoid stress

Fact: Stress can increase anxiety, however seeing yourself as fragile, avoiding stress and situations that cause anxiety will only make it worse in the long run. You can be anxious and still do those things anyway. Treatment for anxiety usually involves gradually and safely exposing you to your fears, so you can learn to cope with and reduce these.

Useful resources

Mindshift

An app designed to help young people understand and cope with anxiety

Anxiety BC

A great Canadian website about anxiety for young people – lots of information and expert advice

Need help now?

If you need to speak to someone urgently call your GP or family doctor!

or

Childline up to 19yrs : 0800 1111
The Samaritans: 116 123
In an emergency go to A&E or call 999

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