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Got a lot on your plate? Feeling overwhelmed? Some worry is normal, but if your anxiety is persistent, overwhelming, and includes a dread of everyday situations, it’s time to take action. If anxiety interferes with your daily routine, you may have an anxiety disorder.
What’s the difference?
Your challenges exceed your resources
Your thinking becomes catastrophic and less rational
Your life becomes impacted by this ‘brain noise’
Examples from Dr. Eric Goodman, clinical psychologist
The anxious student
Symptoms of anxiety disorders can start to emerge as early as age six, according to a 2015 report by the Child Mind Institute. Have you been carrying your lunchbox and your anxiety with you since first grade? A national survey of more than 10,000 teens found that nearly one in three had experienced an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. But 8 out of 10 teens who have an anxiety disorder are not receiving treatment.
What anxiety can mean for students:
- Feeling unreasonably fearful, obsessive, or negative.
- Refusing to go to school or avoiding social activities.
- A higher risk of abusing substances and doing poorly in school (if an anxiety disorder is left untreated).
- Physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, tightness in the chest, and feeling tired all the time.
Note: These feelings are normal in a stressful situation, but if symptoms seem to happen out of the blue, it may be a sign of an anxiety disorder.
What are the different types of anxiety disorders?
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Signs: Difficulty tolerating uncertainty, worrying about everyday issues, and fearing the worst.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Signs: Ritualistic behaviors to help avoid unwelcome thoughts or feelings.
Signs: Panic attacks triggered by stress and certain behaviors (e.g., skipping meals, inadequate sleep, consuming alcohol and caffeine).
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Signs: Attempts to push away or numb thoughts and feelings associated with trauma, and long-term severe depression and anxiety.
Social anxiety disorder
Signs: Extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations.
Signs: Strong, irrational reactions to fear that can arise unexpectedly in situations that didn’t used to bother you.
What's happening in your mind and body when you're anxious?
- A danger or threat generates physical sensations: faster heartbeat and breathing, tense muscles, sweaty palms, queasy stomach, and/or trembling hands or legs. These are signs of the fight or flight response.
- A rush of adrenaline and other chemicals prepare you for a quick getaway. This can be mild or extreme.
- It takes a little longer for the evaluative brain, the cortex, to process the situation and decide whether the threat is real and how to deal with it.
- If the threat is not real, the fight or flight response is deactivated.
- If the threat seems real, the anxiety sensations will linger, keeping the person alert and on edge.
- These lingering feelings can bring a sense of doom and foreboding.
What you can do about anxiety
1. Maintain a healthy lifestyle
A nutritious diet, enough sleep, and exercise are central to preventing and handling anxiety. “Due to the discomfort that anxiety brings, it’s important to address it with actions that focus on breathing, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and yoga,” says Patricia Spurling, sexual assault victim advocate for Morongo Basin Sexual Assault Services in Twentynine Palms, California.
2. Identify the nature of your anxiety, its triggers, and appropriate strategies for alleviating it
For example: Establish realistic goals, monitor and challenge your thinking patterns, and minimize some of the activities that feel overwhelming. Check out these tips for teens.
3. Seek support from personal or professional contacts
Try talking to a friend or an adult you trust about how you’re feeling. Here are more recommendations from Mentalhealth.gov.
Counseling has been shown to be an effective treatment for anxiety.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
What is it? CBT involves identifying negative or unhealthy thinking and behavior patterns and working on consciously changing them.
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
What is it? ACT uses mindfulness techniques and behavior change tactics to help you cope with unwanted thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
Exposure with response-prevention therapy (ERP)
What is it? ERP gradually exposes a person to feared situations and objects, decreasing sensitivity over time. This is particularly useful with OCD and phobias.
How to manage your anxiety
Treating anxiety involves facing the triggers and resisting the urge to retreat. “Anxiety disorders are treatable,” says Dr. Goodman, clinical psychologist at the Coastal Center for Anxiety Treatment in San Luis Obispo, California. “Often, avoiding the problem feels better in the shortterm. However, in the longterm, you get more stuck, miss out on valued activities, and inevitably suffer more over time. Facing the problem head-on is much scarier and uncomfortable, but you get to reclaim your life and well-being. You become free."
Nearly 7 out of 10 students said they felt anxious sometimes or often in the past month, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey. What’s making students anxious?
“I’ve had plenty of issues with anxiety. Either with school or trying to support everyone around me. I’m one of those sensitive people, so life can get hard. But I found optimism really helps, as well as getting help from others and believing in all the encouragement I get from others. Exercising (especially soccer) helps get rid of unwanted [negative] energy,” says Riana, a senior in Thornton, Colorado.
What makes you anxious?
In a recent Student Health 101 survey, we asked you how often you feel anxious about academics, social situations, the future, and your loved ones’ well-being. Here are the results.
Percentage of students* who say they feel anxious often or almost always, by topic.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Dr. Eric Goodman, clinical psychologist, Coastal Center for Anxiety Treatment, San Luis Obispo, California.
Patricia Spurling, sexual assault victim’s advocate, Morongo Basin Sexual Assault Services, Twentynine Palms, California.
Active Minds. (n.d.). The issue: Student mental health. Retrieved from https://www.activeminds.org/issues-a-resources/the-issue
American College Health Association. (n.d.). National College Health Assessment: Spring 2014 reference group executive summary. Retrieved from https://www.acha-ncha.org/docs/ACHA-NCHA-II_ReferenceGroup_ExecutiveSummary_Spring2014.pdf
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Child Mind Institute. (2015). Children’s Mental Health Report. Retrieved from https://www.speakupforkids.org/report.html
Merikangas, K. R., He, J. P., Burstein, M., Swanson, S. A., et al. (2010). Lifetime prevalence of mental disorders in US adolescents: Results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication—Adolescent Supplement (NCSA). Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 49(10), 980–989.
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Teenshealth. (n.d.). Anxiety disorders. Retrieved from https://teenshealth.org/teen/your_mind/mental_health/anxiety.html#cat20123
University of California Irvine. (n.d.). Anxiety disorders. Retrieved from https://www.ulifeline.org/uci/topics/132-anxiety-disorders
University of Illinois Counseling Center. (2007). Understanding and treating anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.counselingcenter.illinois.edu/self-help-brochures/stress-and-anxiety/understanding-and-treating-anxiety/