This leaflet is provided by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the professional body responsible for education, training, setting and raising standards in psychiatry. They also provide readable, user-friendly and evidence-based information on various mental health problems.
What is anxiety?
We all get frightened or worried from time to time. Fear can be a good thing as it keeps us from getting too close to danger. Sometimes, we can feel frightened or worry about things too much and this can get in the way of enjoying life. This sort of fear or worry is called anxiety.
How common is it?
Anxiety is one of the common mental health problems. Nearly 300,000 young people in Britain have an anxiety disorder. So you are not alone. Lots of people, however, suffer in silence. It is important to recognise your problems and seek help, especially when anxiety starts affecting your everyday life.
What does anxiety feel like?
When we feel we are in danger, our brains tell our bodies to get ready to run away quickly. This means that if you have anxiety you may feel this in your mind, as well as physically in your body. Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety are listed below.
In your body you may feel:
- Your heart racing.
- Short of breath.
- 'Butterflies' in the stomach.
In your mind you may:
- Feel upset.
- Feel worried.
- Feel irritable.
- Feel unable to relax.
- Have difficulty in concentrating.
What different types of anxiety can I experience?
Anxieties are grouped based on what the fear or worry is about. Grouping is also helpful in understanding your difficulties and treating them.
Fears and phobias
You might remember being scared of the dark or insects when you were little. This is normal and as we get older, we usually grow out of these fears or are able to manage them without worrying too much about it. Sometimes fears about particular things (eg, needles, animals) or places (eg, darkness, heights) can be really strong and not go away. They stop you from doing normal things and interfere or take over your life. These fears are called phobias. You may need extra help to cope with a phobia.
Some people feel anxious most of the time for no obvious reason. When it is really bad, it can stop you concentrating at school or having fun with friends and family. Sometimes feeling anxious and sad can go together. You may need help to be able to feel and cope better.
Separation anxiety is feeling worried or anxious when you are away from your parents/family/guardians. It is normal for very young children to feel scared and worried when they are not with the people who normally look after them. If it is still a problem when you are older or a teenager, this can make it difficult to go to school or go out with friends. If this happens it is best to get help.
In simple terms this is really bad shyness. You may be comfortable with people you know well, but find it very worrying to be with new people, in new places or social occasions like parties. Speaking up in class or assembly can be extremely difficult for you, as you are worried about making mistakes or what others think of you. This means you may tend to avoid situations which involve other people. When this happens, it is important to seek help.
A panic attack is an extreme episode of anxiety that seems to occur for no reason. It may feel as if your mind has gone totally out of control. Panic attacks have a start and a finish; they are not continuous, although you might worry about when the next one will happen. During an attack, you can have physical feelings of anxiety along with frightening thoughts, like thinking you are going to die or ‘go mad’. It is rare for younger children to have panic attacks on their own, without another form of anxiety such as those mentioned earlier. This becomes more common in teenagers. When the fear of having an attack or having attacks frequently stops you from doing your daily routine or enjoying life, this is called panic disorder.
What causes these worries and anxieties?
We do not really know what causes this illness. However, sometimes you may find that the problems started after upsetting or frightening experiences in your life (eg, being bullied at school, having an illness, losing someone you love, your parents separating). You may be able to manage one thing, but when lots of things happen at once, like parents separating, moving house, and changing school, it can become much more difficult.
Anxiety tends to run in families, so if someone in your family is known to worry a lot, you may be more likely to worry as well. Some of this will be passed on in the genes, but you may also ‘learn’ anxious behaviour from being around anxious people. If your family or friends are anxious or harsh, it can make your anxiety worse. In this case it may help to talk to them about it.
Will I grow out of it?
Some people may grow out of anxiety, but a few may still experience it when they grow up. The good news is that anxiety is treatable.
What can I do?
There is a lot you can do with the help of family and good friends to make you feel better.
- Try to give yourself more time to get used to any changes that happen at home or at school, as change can be more difficult when you worry a lot.
- Check if you might be picking up on someone else's worry, rather than it being your own.
- Get support from good friends and family; you might also want to talk to someone outside the family, such as a teacher or mentor.
If this isn't enough, you might need more specialist help. Speak to your GP or school nurse, who may send you to see someone from the local child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS).
How is anxiety treated?
The type of specialist help offered to you will depend on what is causing the anxiety. Usually it will be a form of talking therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT can help you to understand and deal with the causes of your anxiety and to find strategies for coping. You may be seen on your own or with your family.
Occasionally, once you’ve tried a talking therapy, you might also be given a medicine to help if your anxiety problem has not got much better. A type of antidepressant is usually used.
Living with anxiety problems is difficult, but anxiety is treatable and doesn't have to keep making you unhappy.
Recommended reading and references
- The Young Mind: An Essential Guide to Mental Health for Young Adults, Parents and Teachers, edited by Sue Bailey and Mike Shooter. Royal College of Psychiatrists (2009)
- Baldwin DS, Anderson IM, Nutt DJ, et al. Evidence-based guidelines for the pharmacological treatment of anxiety disorders: recommendations. British Association for Psychopharmacology. J Psychopharmacol 2005; 19:567-96
- Green H, McGinnity A, Meltzer H, et al. Mental Health of Children and Young People in Great Britain, 2004. Office for National Statistics, 2005
- Ipser JC, Stein DJ, Hawkridge S, et al. Pharmacotherapy for anxiety disorders in children and adolescents. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2009; 3:CD005170
- Anxiety: Guide to Self-Help Resources. NICE, 2011
- O’Kearney RT, Anstey KJ, von Sanden C, et al. Behavioural and cognitive behavioural therapy for obsessive compulsive disorder in children and adolescents. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2006; 4: CD004856
Content used with permission from the Royal College of Psychiatrists website: Worries and anxieties: information for young people (March 2012, due for review March 2014). Copyright for this leaflet is with the Royal College of Psychiatrists.