Learn about anxiety and how to find help for children and teens in Ontario.
Everybody feels tense, worried or nervous from time to time. This is anxiety. It is a natural response to stress. The experience of anxiety is very individual. Some situations may create more anxiety than others and everybody copes with anxiety differently.
In small doses, anxiety can be a good thing. Anxiety can motivate us and make us more productive. A little bit of fear may push us to study harder for that next exam or prepare for that job interview. And a burst of anxiety can even be a lifesaver when it helps us get out of the way of danger.
But too much anxiety can be a problem. If feelings of tension, fear and worry are there too much of the time and get in the way of everyday activities, it could be the sign of an anxiety disorder. Like depression, anxiety disorders are a common problem. In fact, sometimes depression and anxiety occur together.
Anxiety disorders are related to a number of factors, including:
- Having a parent with depression or anxiety
- Family genetics
- Facing stressful situations at home, at school or in the community
If a young person is troubled by anxiety, encourage them to talk about it with someone they trust. Anxiety disorders may not go away by themselves, but they are treatable. There are things a young person can do to feel better.
Some types of anxiety disorders
There are many types of anxiety disorder. Each type tends to have its own particular trigger. Here are some of the more common types.
Generalized anxiety disorder
This type of anxiety disorder consists of a general sense of worry about a lot of things, a lot of the time. It can result in:
- Feelings of restlessness
- Muscle tension
- Trouble concentrating
- Trouble sleeping
Young people with generalized anxiety disorder tend to be perfectionists and worry about what others think of them.
Social anxiety or social phobia
Phobias are fears. Social phobia is a fear of being centred out in public and facing possible embarrassment or ridicule by others. So, for example, being asked to stand up and speak in class might cause physical symptoms like:
- A racing heart
- Muscle tension
Social phobia is most common in the teen years. Those with a social phobia are often very shy, self-conscious and sensitive to criticism.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
OCD involves a pattern of frequent, repeated actions that are the result of repeated, anxious thoughts. For example, if a person becomes “obsessed” with the idea there are germs everywhere that can make them sick, they may end up “compulsively” washing their hands over and over again in an effort to kill the germs. The problem is, the anxious thought returns and so the person washes their hands again. It can become a vicious cycle. In fact, the cycle of anxious thoughts and compulsive responses can become so constant that the person can think or do little else.
When very young children are away from their parents, it is normal for them to become upset and fearful. This is known as separation anxiety. But when an older child or teen experiences this kind of anxiety, especially if it gets in the way of other life activities, it may require professional help. Separation anxiety can cause nightmares and physical problems like stomach aches.
Separation from home can also cause a type of anxiety known as homesickness. Homesickness is a normal part of development. It usually fades away as a young person grows up and gains practice at being away.
Panic attacks can be triggered by any number of fearful thoughts or situations. A panic attack typically includes extreme physical symptoms like:
- Difficulty breathing
- Pounding heart
- Dizziness and shakiness
No matter what triggers it, a panic attack is a frightening experience. If a person has frequent panic attacks, it would be considered a panic disorder.
Specific phobias are common. For example, many people have a fear of snakes or spiders. While treatable, these types of phobias are not as disabling as other kinds of anxiety disorder.
Treatment for anxiety
Some types of counselling along with certain medications, prescribed by a doctor, can be helpful in dealing with an anxiety disorder. Specifically, cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is often the first choice for treatment. Medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be used in addition to therapy, if necessary. For more information about treatment options, see the resources listed below.
Managing anxiety – Self-help tips
If someone you know is having trouble with anxiety, there are things they can do to feel better. Here are some self-help tips you can share:
Take care of yourself:
- Eat right, sleep right, move your body! Each of these healthy activities can help reduce anxiety and make a positive difference to your whole body/mind system.
- Avoid alcohol and street drugs. These may seem like a way to make yourself feel better, but in the long run, they can make things a lot worse.
- Become aware of what triggers your anxiety and reduce stress where and when you can.
Learn how to chill out:
- This may sound simple, but learning how to relax deeply can take time and practice. Techniques include deep breathing mindfulness meditation, yoga and tai chi. Each of these activities can help calm both body and mind. Courses may be available at school or a local recreation centre.
Stay connected with friends and family:
- Too much time alone can allow worries and anxieties to grow. Doing things with others can give you a break from your worries and offer you new, enjoyable experiences instead. Staying connected also means that others can be there for you, to listen to your concerns and provide support.
Spend time in nature:
- Get outside and spend time in a natural setting, like a park. There’s more and more evidence that just being in nature is good for our mental health. And it’s a great place for exercise, relaxation or spending time with friends or family.
- Find services close to home by searching the Ontario Health Care Options directory.
- Contact Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or www.kidshelpphone.ca. They provide free professional counselling by phone or online, and can connect young people to information and local help. Kids Help Phone is available 24/7 for children and youth between the ages of 5 and 20. Online chat is also available at certain times — check the website for hours.
- Talk to a school counsellor or nurse.
- Tell your family doctor.
More information about anxiety
Anxiety Disorders Association of Ontario
Toll-free information line: 1-877-308-3843
Mood Disorders Association of Ontario
Ontario Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Network
Self-Help Resource Centre