We all get stressed or anxious sometimes. It’s a very common and normal feeling that everyone experiences at different levels during different times in their lives.
Anxiety happens when your brain thinks there might be something it needs to protect you from, even if there is no threat or danger. You might have felt like this when you had to talk in front of your class, before a try-out, during quiz/exam time or before a performance. Sometimes it can happen for no reason at all.
Even if anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling, it serves a purpose.
You could think about it like a smoke alarm. When a room fills with smoke, the smoke alarm doesn’t know where it’s coming from – it could be a house fire or it could just be the toaster! Either way, its sensors are triggered, the alarm goes off and makes everyone jump into action.
Your anxiety works the same way – your brain is saying something is wrong and it doesn’t know what, but it starts to react anyway and your body’s reactions are activated. When this is happening, your body is surging with a mix of chemicals designed to make you stronger, faster, more alert and more powerful so you can take the action your body needs to survive.
At times your anxiety may trigger something called the fight, flight or freeze response, where your brain tells you to protect yourself by fighting back, running away or freezing and trying not to stand out. This is normal and healthy and everyone has it, but when there is no danger you need to protect yourself from, the chemical fuel that is surging through you starts to build up and make you feel uncomfortable – you may get sweaty, shaky, feel tired, queasy or short of breath or feel your heart beating faster.
A bit of anxiety can be helpful, it can make you think more about the situation you’re in, and can motivate you to get things done or do your best. Most anxiety usually settles once the stressful situation has passed. When anxiety is at this level, you don’t need to do anything except focus on getting through the situation - these anxious thoughts and feelings will probably go away once it’s over.
If you need some practical ways to help you cope with these feelings, check out Small Steps for some helpful tools.
Anxiety is only a problem when you can’t cope with it - when those feelings get so overwhelming that they stop you from doing things in your everyday life and make you feel miserable. If you find yourself at this point, it’s time to reach out for help. Start by talking to someone you trust about how you’re feeling, or reach out to Youthline, What’s Up or a mental health professional.
Anxiety disorders occur when your anxiety takes over your life and stops you from doing things. They are diagnosed by a mental health professional, and can occur in different forms.
Getting a diagnosis is really important as once you know what kind of anxiety you have, you and your support team (your therapist or other mental health professional and other trusted people in your life) can work out a plan to treat it and help you recover.
Generalised Anxiety is when you feel anxious and worry heaps about everyday things, like “Was what I said in the group chat weird, are they going to think there’s something wrong with me?”or “I’m going to screw up in next week’s exam, I just can’t do it. It’s going to ruin my future”. You may find yourself replaying what’s stressing you over and over in your head and feel like you can’t let it go. You might be really hard on yourself about being perfect, fitting in and doing everything well. For some people, feelings of anxiety might become so overwhelming it can affect you physically.
Many people are also now struggling with Covid Anxiety. This is really common since the beginning of the pandemic, and is usually focused around feeling scared of catching covid or of passing it on to someone else, to the point where it’s dominating your thoughts and making you afraid to go out, to be in busy places or be near other people. Due to all the time we’ve spent at home and avoiding other people over the last few years, even if you’re not specifically scared of catching covid, you still might feel anxious and overwhelmed in public places and when someone gets in your personal space.
Some people with covid anxiety may experience anxiety attacks, when your brain focuses in on what’s making you anxious so intensely that you start to panic and feel physical symptoms. If you think you have been experiencing anxiety attacks, head to Small Steps and practice the Deep Breathing and Muscle Relaxation techniques you’ll find there, and use them next time you think an anxiety attack is coming on. A mental health professional can also help you learn to control your anxiety attacks and reach a point where they no longer happen.
Another common type of anxiety disorder is Social Anxiety. This can take over when you meet new people, have to speak in class, make phone calls or other situations where someone’s attention is on you.
Your fear of talking to strangers, having people stare at you, potentially embarrassing yourself or just having a conversation with someone you’re not comfortable with can be so intense that you can start avoiding these situations and not want to interact with other people.
Phobias are a fear or anxiety that’s about something specific – like if you’re intensely scared of spiders, the dark or being in small spaces. These might sound harmless (and they often are) but for the person with the phobia it’s really tough. Most people who experience phobias aren’t harmed by them but if it starts to get in the way of living your life, you need to talk to someone you trust and ask them for help.
However your anxiety feels, if this excessive worry gets in the way of your life, doesn’t go away or has physical effects on your body, that’s a sign that you should tell someone you trust about how you’re feeling and ask them for help. If you’re willing to see your doctor or a mental health professional, they can help you find ways to manage and eventually overcome your anxiety.
You’re not alone in what you’re feeling. Heaps of people experience anxiety and everyone finds it a tough thing to face. Making progress in how you feel can take time and you’ll have some good and bad days, but managing and overcoming your anxiety is definitely possible.
It’s important to note that sometimes the person you talk to may not offer you the help and support you need, but don’t give up there. Try again with someone else. You are important, your experience is valid and just because someone doesn’t listen or give you the help you need doesn’t mean what you’re facing isn’t real.