As mental health awareness improves, more and more people are able to share their experiences of feeling anxious or worried. This is great for breaking down stigma, but when talk about anxiety is everywhere, it can also be confusing.
If everyone feels anxious sometimes, when is anxiety a problem? What level of anxiety is ‘normal’ or ‘expected’ – and how badly do you have to be struggling to get support
We spoke to Tom Foster, Clinical Nurse Specialist in Child and Adolescent Mental Health, about anxiety disorders, diagnoses, and the help available for young people who feel anxious.
‘Typical’ experiences of anxiety
Firstly, it’s often helpful to know that feeling anxious is something that happens to everyone.
Saying this isn’t to invalidate anyone’s experience of anxiety – Tom knows from his work with young people that anxiety can be really difficult and overwhelming.
But it does mean that we don’t always need to worry if we feel anxious – and that feeling worried doesn’t mean there’s anything ‘wrong’ with you.
‘We all feel anxious at times, and it’s typical for our anxiety to go up and down based on things that are happening around us,’ says Tom. ‘Sometimes life can feel overwhelming – anxiety is our body’s natural way of reacting and letting us know that it’s a stressful time.’
In terms of what a ‘typical’ experience of anxiety might be, Tom says examples include: ‘feeling anxious about school or exams, especially when you’re coming up to GCSEs or A-levels, or feeling nervous about speaking in front of a group.’
Everyone’s experiences of anxiety are different – but they’re not always entirely negative. ‘Sometimes, a moderate amount of anxiety can even help us notice things about ourselves or motivate us so we can achieve things that are important to us,’ explains Tom.
Signs anxiety is becoming a problem
So when is anxiety a problem? Tom says: ‘One of the things that might tell us that anxiety is starting to become a problem is if it’s becoming a lot more frequent. This might look like someone worrying all the time about exams, even outside of exam season, for example, or feeling nervous about meeting up with a good friend.’
He continues: ‘Another sign that someone might need more support to manage feelings of anxiety is if it’s starting to get in the way of the things they usually do, like seeing friends or going to school.’
You don’t need a diagnosis to get support for anxiety
Sometimes people who are struggling with how often they feel anxious or how much anxiety gets in the way of their daily life are diagnosed with a mental health condition like generalised anxiety disorder.
‘Labels and diagnoses can be really helpful ways for us to summarise a range of experiences into categories,’ explains Tom.
Having categories for different types of experiences means people can carry out research to gather information about different things that help people with similar experiences. It also helps clinicians like Tom to think about the support that will suit a person best. ‘We might want to offer support differently for someone who’s feeling really anxious about social situations compared to someone who’s feeling really anxious generally,’ he explains.
‘For some people, having a name for their experiences (like a diagnosis) can be really comforting. Sometimes, when we name the things we are finding difficult it can help us start to talk about working on them.’
But Tom is very clear: ‘You don’t need a label from a clinician for your experiences to be “real” or “valid”. And you do not have to have a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder to start to work on managing your anxiety, especially if it’s something that’s becoming a problem in your day-to-day life.’
In fact, since we know that everyone experiences anxiety sometimes, it can be helpful to practice ways of dealing with stress and anxious feelings to build techniques and skills for more challenging periods in your life.
Look after yourself if you experience anxiety
Tom has two main recommendations for young people looking to work on their anxiety.
His first tip is around everyday things you can do to take care of your mental wellbeing.
‘We know that our mind does best when we have good sleep, when we’re eating well, when we’re being active in ways that are comfortable for us, and when we’re connecting with things in life that bring us relief and happiness,’ he says.
If you can, try these things before especially stressful periods. ‘Looking after these “basic” things now means that we’re in a much better place to access ways of coping when we are feeling anxious,’ Tom explains.
Get support if you’re feeling anxious
‘My second tip would be about accessing some of the tools that are available to support young people to manage anxiety,’ says Tom.
Tom recommends Kooth – a free, online wellbeing community where you can check out content, journal, take part in discussion boards, and chat to an online team.
The Best For You app library has lots of tried-and-tested apps that help with anxiety in different ways. Some of these apps are based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
‘CBT looks at the impact anxiety has on our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and the things we do,’ explains Tom.
‘CBT helps us to notice patterns in these four areas and find ways of dealing with these things differently. You might learn to break problems down, work on new strategies, and find new ways to look at patterns you might be falling into.’
- Breathr supports you to try guided meditations and mindfulness practices
- Happify has science-based activities and games that help you overcome negative thoughts
- MindShift CBT uses evidence-based strategies based on CBT to help you tackle anxiety
- Wysa has an AI character who can help you cope with negative feelings and organise your thoughts
- Clear Fear is a CBT-informed app that helps you learn to reduce your physical responses to threat as well as changing thoughts and behaviours. Find more information about Clear Fear for Android and Clear Fear for iOS.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or in crisis, there are different ways to get urgent help.
If you find talking to people on the phone overwhelming, you can always text NATTER to 85258. Trained volunteers respond by text and help you reach a calmer place where you feel more ready to take the next steps to feeling better. Find out more about texting NATTER.
How CAMHS helps young people with anxiety
Young people often want to know how CAMHS can help with anxiety.
‘If you were to come to CAMHS because you were struggling with anxiety,’ says Tom, ‘it would always start with an assessment. All that means is a conversation with a clinician about the things you’ve been finding difficult.
‘They might ask questions about how long it’s been happening, what makes it better or worse, and any things you’re already doing to try to help.
‘It’s possible that a talking therapy such as CBT might be suggested, as the research suggests that this is one of the most helpful treatments for anxiety. However, depending on your individual experiences, other talking therapies and treatments might sometimes be offered.’
Recovering from anxiety
As with most mental health conditions, recovering from an anxiety disorder looks different for different people – but people can, and do, get better.
‘Sometimes it can feel like you have an anxiety disorder and it’ll be there forever,’ says Tom, ‘and that’s just not true. Anxiety isn’t a disorder that sticks around for your whole life. Some people experience symptoms of an anxiety disorder a number of times, and some people experience them once and never again.’
But recovering from an anxiety disorder doesn’t mean you’ll never feel anxious again.
Tom says: ‘It can be difficult to sit with experiences of anxiety when you’ve moved on from an anxiety disorder.’
But, just like people who have recovered from depression might still feel sad in certain situations, people in recovery from an anxiety disorder will often still experience thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations of anxiety – especially during stressful situations.
‘It’s about knowing that that’s OK,’ says Tom. ‘It’s normal, it’s fine, and you have skills and strategies and support. You can manage!’