Anxiety and anxiety disorders

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Everyone experiences some anxiety but sometimes anxiety can interfere with daily routines. Learn about the symptoms, causes and treatments for anxiety.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal feeling that everyone experiences. It acts as your body’s alarm system to warn you of a threat so you can either fight it or flee from it.

Everyone feels anxious or nervous sometimes. For instance, we all might feel scared if a car is approaching too fast. Some of us might also feel nervous before a test or before going somewhere like a new school or meeting new people. If you can manage the anxiety and it does not prevent you from doing things, then your anxiety is helpful.

What is an anxiety disorder?

When someone has an anxiety disorder, their anxiety interferes with their ability to do things. An anxiety disorder is usually diagnosed when a person’s anxiety prevents them from doing things that would be normal for someone their age to do.

For instance, you might have an anxiety disorder if your anxiety prevents you from going to school, spending time away from your family, doing well at school or with sports, or being with your friends.

What are the signs and symptoms of an anxiety disorder?

A big symptom of an anxiety disorder is excessive worrying, to the point that you can’t control or stop it. You might worry about lots of different things such as the future, your family, your friends, things you have said or done, your health, your school marks or making mistakes.

Another major symptom is that your anxiety makes you avoid even fun things.

Other major signs and symptoms of anxiety include:

  • difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • nightmares that wake you up in the middle of the night
  • stomach aches, headaches, generally feeling unwell
  • restlessness or irritability
  • feeling tense and not being able to relax
  • difficulty concentrating
  • feeling too shy or too uncomfortable with new people
  • difficulty speaking with friends or other kids

How common are anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders are very, very common. In fact, they are the most common mental health condition. They affect up to one in every five people. In other words, four kids in a class of twenty may have an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders can develop at any age – children as young as three or four can have an anxiety disorder. Others may not develop an anxiety disorder until they are in high school.

What causes an anxiety disorder?

Many researchers are working to understand what exactly causes an anxiety disorder. At the moment, they believe the causes include a mix of genes (for example a family history of anxiety) and factors in your environment.

What makes an anxiety disorder more likely?

The things that make an anxiety disorder more likely are called risk factors.

One risk factor is having a family member, such as a parent or sibling, with an anxiety disorder. There is also some evidence to suggest that depression in family members may be another risk factor.

Some people are naturally more shy, quiet and cautious than others, right from the time they’re born. This is known as your natural temperament. This way of being can be associated with an increased risk of having an anxiety disorder. But it is also important to know that an anxiety disorder does not develop in all shy, quiet or cautious people.

Being with all of your experiences

How to use: This animation explains why pushing away unwanted thoughts, feelings and sensations can often make a situation worse. Use it when you are finding it hard to focus on the people and things that are important to you, or if you are spending too much energy avoiding your unwanted thoughts or feelings. After the video, take a moment to let all of your thoughts, feelings and sensations be with you, without pushing any of them away.

How is an anxiety disorder diagnosed?

There is no medical test for an anxiety disorder. A physician or nurse practitioner can make an initial diagnosis from talking with you and your parents and understanding how your anxiety affects your everyday life.

Sometimes your health-care provider may suggest you see a psychiatrist (a medical doctor who specializes in mental health) or a psychologist (a mental health specialist) to get a confirmed diagnosis using their expertise. The psychiatrist or psychologist will also make a diagnosis from talking to you and your parents to understand how your anxiety interferes with your ability to do things.

How are anxiety disorders treated?


How to use: Use the meditation when you’d like to refocus, take a break or reset your day. Follow along with the meditation, taking time to focus on your natural in-breath and out-breath without any judgment, counting or visualization.

Remember that a little anxiety can be a good thing – for example, feeling a little anxious about a test can help motivate you to study harder. However, when anxiety doesn’t let you do things that you need or like to do, then you might need to seek out treatment.

The first step in treatment is talking to someone. A special type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help. CBT helps people understand the link between their thoughts, feelings and actions. A CBT therapist can also help you learn relaxation strategies such as deep breathing or muscle relaxation. CBT typically takes place once a week for about eight to 14 weeks.

Other types of talk therapy can also be helpful. Sometimes family therapy may be a good idea as well. Family therapy can be done together with your family members or close relations and can be beneficial if there is a lot of family tension or conflict. This type of therapy can help your family to better understand and support each other, and help you improve communication.

With moderate to severe anxiety, a doctor might suggest a trial of medications called serotonin selective reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Overwhelmed: Managing feelings and racing thoughts

How to use: We all get overwhelmed sometimes. Whether you are overwhelmed by too many feelings, too many tasks to do at once or too many racing thoughts, this video can help you hit the pause button to allow you to care for yourself and find out what you need right now.

How to manage your anxiety at home

Good sleep habits, good eating habits and regular exercise can help manage anxiety. You can also help yourself by reducing your daily intake of caffeine (such as coffee and caffeinated soft drinks or energy drinks).

It is also a good idea to cut down on your use of social media, and screen time in general. Listening to music or podcasts or following along with some relaxation or meditation apps may also help ease anxiety. In addition, you can try deep breathing, muscle relaxation exercises, mindfulness and silent meditation.

Click through the following interactive for ways you can use your five senses to distract yourself.


When should I see a health-care provider?

Go see a health-care provider when anxiety does not let you do things that you want to do, like being with your friends, doing well at school, or being without your family or parents.

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Last updated: September 30th 2021