Normal anxiety and anxiety problems: how to tell the difference
Most normal anxiety is short-lived – the feelings might last a few hours or a day.
An anxiety problem or disorder is when anxious feelings:
are consistently very intense and severe
go on for weeks, months or even longer
are so distressing that they get in the way of a young person’s ability to learn, socialise and do things necessary for development.
Anxiety disorders can be especially serious for young people, who are still developing. If left untreated, anxiety disorders can have long-term consequences for a young person’s mental health and development.
Normal anxiety is an emotion you can expect to see in your teenager. In fact, some anxiety can even be a good thing. You can read more about normal anxiety in adolescence.
Symptoms of anxiety problems and disorders
Talk with your child and see a health professional if, over a period of more than two weeks, your child:
feels constantly agitated, tense, restless or on edge – your child might seem unable to relax
shows physical signs like tense or sore muscles, a racing heart or sweating, headache or stomach aches, or nausea. These physical signs of anxiety can occur in response to something that triggers your child’s anxiety
seems very sensitive to criticism or extremely self-conscious or uncomfortable in social situations
always expects the worst to happen or seems to worry excessively and out of proportion to problems or situations
avoids difficult or new situations, or has difficulty facing new challenges
is withdrawn, socially isolated or very shy
procrastinates – for example, has trouble starting or completing schoolwork
has sleeping problems, such as trouble falling or staying asleep
has trouble concentrating or often seems forgetful or distracted
feels that she must do a particular action, or something over and over (compulsive behaviour)
has obsessive thoughts or images that he says he can’t get out of his head.
Seek help if your child shows any of these signs, and you are concerned. Not all the signs have to be present for there to be a problem. Start by talking to your child and others who might be able to help – a GP, school counsellor, family members or other parents.
An adolescent anxiety problem might be hard to spot. Many children are good at hiding their feelings and thoughts. They might mask those feelings with aggressive behaviour or withdrawal. There are also several different types of anxiety disorders, and not every child will have the same symptoms.
Types of anxiety problems and disorders
There are several different types of anxiety problems that can be classified by a health professional as disorders.
Social phobia or social anxiety disorder is an intense fear of social situations or of being judged or embarrassed in public.
Generalised anxiety disorder is excessive worry about many everyday situations.
Specific phobias are intense fears of situations or objects – for example, dogs or heights.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is excessive, unwanted and intrusive thoughts, often leading to repeatedly performing a routine or action.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is intense fear or anxiety after experiencing a traumatic or life-threatening event.
Panic disorder is repeated, unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack is an overwhelming sensation of fear or panic in a situation where most people wouldn’t be afraid.
Young people might be diagnosed with more than one type of anxiety disorder. Anxiety might also be experienced along with other physical or mental health problems such as depression.
Risk factors for anxiety problems and disorders
Risk factors – things that might make a young person more vulnerable or sensitive to experiencing anxiety – are thought to include:
genetic factors – that is, a family history of mental health problems
personality factors, such as being very sensitive
environmental factors, such as stress or a very stressful event in your child’s life
other factors, such as ongoing physical illness.
Studies have also found that having an anxiety disorder in early or middle childhood can increase your child’s risk of developing a depressive disorder in later adolescence.
Not every child with these risk factors will go on to develop an anxiety disorder. There is a strong link between the quality of parent-teenager relationships and young people’s mental health.