We all get stressed from time to time, but what happens when anxiety starts to take over your life?
Do you ever stress out before an exam? Or get crazy butterflies before a first date? For most of us, stress is that funny little feeling we get in our stomachs before something important’s about to go down. But for some, this feeling can escalate until it becomes totally unbearable and takes over their lives. Little everyday things like stopping by the corner store can become terrifying. This is way more than being stressed – this is an anxiety disorder.
What is anxiety?
A year ago, Megan*, 15, was leading a normal life as a teenage girl when she started to feel different. She was normally a carefree student, but suddenly little things started to make her feel sick with stress. “I started feeling really worried and scared about everything, even little things that hardly seem to matter,” Megan recalls. But her condition soon intensified to the point where she suffered frequent and intense panic attacks. “I get really worked up and end up breaking down into tears or panic attacks and I can’t breathe,” she explains. “Most nights I fall asleep crying, usually triggered by small things like a rough day at work or school, or memories from last year when my mum went away for a few months.”
At first, Megan didn’t want to worry her friends and family. But then she realised she needed to get help to move past her anxiety disorder. And she’s not alone – anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems experienced by teenagers. In fact, one in 25 teenagers experience anxiety each year**. It’s a serious condition that affects how you deal with people, school and work, and the feeling can last for weeks, months or even longer.
Some of the symptoms of an anxiety disorder – such as a pounding heart and thoughts like “I’m going crazy” – can often go unnoticed or brushed off as simply being a teenager. But you could be at risk of an anxiety disorder if you’ve been feeling particularly worried and spent most of the last two weeks feeling tense, nervous or anxious. “Anxiety becomes a concern when it’s irrational, difficult to manage and is interfering with your life – for example, if you avoid potentially enjoyable situations and experiences because you’re scared or worried,” explains child and family social worker Erin O’Sullivan.
For Gen*, 16, she realised something was seriously wrong when she discovered she couldn’t go out with her friends without feeling irrationally nervous. “I didn’t go outside for two months because I was so scared I was going to have a panic attack,” she says.
Other symptoms include:
• Shortness of breath
• Avoiding public places
• Avoiding eye contact with people
• A belief that you can’t control your fear
How to deal
If your anxiety is interfering with your life, you need to deal with it ASAP. Don’t just let it go; it’s important to nip an anxiety disorder in the bud before it gets worse. “Young girls who experience frequent or intense anxiety often feel bad about themselves and feel like there’s something wrong with them,” says Erin. “But it’s important for girls to know they’re not alone – other girls their age are experiencing the same thing and help is available.” Remember that treatment takes time; you might still have some bad days in the mix, but it is possible to get over it.
Talk about it
Erin suggests first chatting with close friends and family if you feel comfortable. “When a young person can talk to someone they trust about how they’re feeling, they often find that they’re not alone and that their experiences are normal and can be managed with the right help,” she says.
See your doc
Your doctor will be able to suggest the best way to manage your anxiety or refer you to a psychologist. Gen says her parents didn’t really understand her anxiety disorder, so it helped to talk to someone else. “I encourage people my age to get the courage to go out and get help, because I know it’s not something you want to go through alone.”
Find the triggers
Try to work out what sorts of situations kick off your anxiety and use positive self-talk and preparation to get you through. A few deep breaths in, then out, will work wonders.
Squash negative thoughts
Take up coping strategies to identify, challenge and modify those niggling little feelings. E.g. replace “I’m going to fail this exam” with “I’ve done all the prep I could; I’m calm and in control”. “With the right tools and support, you can change the way you experience certain situations,” adds Erin.
Take care of yourself
A healthy body encourages a healthy mind. Eat well, exercise regularly, get good sleep and find ways to relax. Pop into a yoga class, learn to meditate or take a stroll with a friend. Remember that alcohol and drugs are NEVER the answer.
Sarah*, 17, used to live in constant fear and cried all day every day, without really understanding why. Six months later, she’s happy to say that she’s overcome the disorder. “The person is in the past,” she says. A great trick Sarah used to overcome her anxiety disorder was to play a game and challenge herself to do the little things she was afraid of. Start small with one action, like going to the shops alone, then build up until you feel comfortable participating in everyday activities again. “Trust me, once you do them, the feeling on the other side outweighs the feeling of dread before,” she says. “Don’t let the fear of the unknown take control of your life.”
A friend in need?
If you think your friend might be suffering from an anxiety disorder, youthbeyondblue.com suggests the following approach:
- Look for signs of anxiety.
- Listen to your friend’s experience.
- Talk about what’s going on.
- Seek help together.
Where to get help
Check out youthbeyondblue.com or ReachOut.com, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 for 24-hour help.