Everyone has times when they feel worried, anxious, or afraid. These are normal responses to life’s uncertainties and these feelings can actually help keep us —for example, anxiety about an upcoming presentation or test can convince us to prepare, and fear of a strange dog can keep us from approaching it.
In some children, teens, and adults, however, these uncomfortable feelings can start to take over. In fact, about one in 10 people experience ongoing anxiety that interferes with their daily lives and causes them, and their families, a lot of distress. These people need help gaining perspective and learning skills so they cope with, and overcome, their fearful feelings. If they don’t learn how to manage their anxiety, they will have a hard time functioning in their lives and could develop more serious mental health problems down the road, such as depression or substance abuse.
Signs and symptoms
How do you know if your child, or your friend, has a problem with anxiety? Young children with anxious tendencies often cry and cling to their parents when it’s time to separate—for example, to go to school or a birthday party. Children and teens will complain of headaches, stomach aches, or sore muscles. They may avoid new situations or places and even activities that they used to enjoy. They may express a lot of worry and sometimes they may have full-blown panic attacks.
A panic attack happens when a perceived threat triggers an internal fear alarm called the fright or flight response. The brain tricks the body into thinking there’s a real survival situation at hand. The person’s heart races, their chest aches, and they experience shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating, trembling and thoughts that they might be dying. About one in five young people will experience a panic attack at some point. They’re not dangerous and pass after a few minutes, but they do indicate a stressed state that means the person is at risk of repeat attacks and increased anxiety and avoidance behaviours.
If you notice these signs and behaviours in a friend, let them know you think they might have a problem with anxiety and suggest that talk to their parents or another trusted adult about their feelings. Refer them to the resource links on these pages for information about how they can learn to feel better.
If you’re a parent of an anxious child or teen, start by doing what you can to reduce stress in your home. For example, ensure the family is on a regular routine and that you’re not overloaded with too many activities. Also, age-appropriate bedtimes and make sure your child eats lots of fresh, nutritious food, gets lots of physical activity, and spend time doing things they enjoy, like drawing, reading or listening to music. Regular cardiovascular activity is a great way to help manage anxiety. Feelings of anxiety get worse when a person is run down and not having fun. Be sure to make note of your own general health and feelings of anxiety as well. Your stress levels, words and behaviours have a major impact on your child.
Review the suggestions and strategies from Anxiety BC. Work with your child or teen to learn the basic techniques that control anxiety, like slow breathing and muscle relaxation. The other thing to teach your child is to think realistically about situations that make them feel anxious. Are the things they’re afraid of really likely to happen? Listen to them carefully and, without downplaying their fears, encourage them to challenge their scary thoughts. Make a plan to slowly start doing the least-scary things on your child’s list of anxiety-provoking activities, so they can learn to apply their new skills to stay calm. This way, they gain confidence over time.
If your child is still finding it difficult to go to school, out in public, to social events, and so on, you may need outside help. The Strongest Families program will work with you and your child, at your convenience and from your home, to develop the skills and attitudes to overcome anxiety.
In more serious situations, where anxiety and panic is regularly keeping your child away from school, friends and activities, contact Mental Health and Addictions Services at the IWK.
Worries, fears and anxiety are very common experiences for everyone. In fact, anxiety is important for our survival and success. For example, anxiety can help us with being safe (looking both ways before you cross the street). Almost all children, youth and adults experience fear, worries and anxiety to some extent. For some, the anxiety is only for a short time, others have it for longer. Anxiety can cause you to feel sick at times, such as having headaches and stomach aches. It is also normal to be fearful or worried about something for a short period of time, like giving a talk, or being in an unfamiliar environment. About one in 10 children, youth and adults will have anxiety that interferes with their life, gets in the way of what they should be doing, and causes a lot of distress.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is triggered in the brain, and is the body’s way of keeping track of important things. Sometimes if a person is tired, upset, sad, stressed or hungry, the brain is more likely to worry or to feel anxious about something. In some situations, when you feel anxious or fearful, your internal fear alarm might go off. This leads to a full body response called the fright/flight response. Your body is tricked by your brain into thinking it is in survival mode and this is when most people experience a panic attack. You may experience a racing heart, aching chest, shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating, trembling, and thoughts that you might be dying. About one in five young people will experience a panic attack. Panic attacks come on quickly and are quite scary, but rarely last more than several minutes. Sometimes panic attacks can become more frequent or severe. It starts to affect your life, you become afraid to leave your house, scared of being in open spaces (like malls or schools), and worry about having another panic attack.
So what can you do about anxiety? First of all, think about what is going on in your life. Have there been things that have been stressful or difficult for you? How are you doing at taking care of yourself? Often when we are going through a difficult time, we stop doing the things our body and brain need to help cope with stress such as getting enough sleep, exercising, eating healthy, seeing friends and family, and doing things we enjoy. When we stop taking care of our body and brain, anxiety and stress get worse. Try to find ways to relax in the day, even if it is just for a few minutes. Listen to music, do some yoga, read a good book or have a warm bath. When anxiety does happen, or you are worried about something, identify that this is anxiety. Is what you are worried about realistic, or is your anxiety making it bigger than it should be? Try to think like a detective and collect some evidence as to whether this is something you need to worry about. Figure out what the next thing would be to help you with what you are worried about. One suggestion would be to talk to someone you trust. It is okay to ask for help and support when you are feeling anxious or worried. Sometimes other people can help you solve problems or think about the situation in a different way. Try not to let anxiety make you avoid things that you usually do and should be doing (e.g. going to school). Avoidance makes anxiety worse in the long run. For other suggestions and strategies in managing anxiety, please visit www.anxietycanada.com
Sometimes anxiety doesn’t go away. It gets bigger and bossier, and takes over your life. Anxiety disorders are diagnosed when fears, worries, or anxiety cause serious distress and get in the way of everyday activities. If you are feeling that anxiety is too much in control of your life, there are supports in your community that can help.
Talking to a parent, school guidance counsellor or family doctor is a good place to start for getting help.