What is anxiety? A guide for young people

Anxiety is another word for when you feel worried or scared. Anxiety can make you feel like your heart is beating too fast, like you feel upset, your breathing feels off or you have pins and needles in your hands and feet, as well as lots of other things.
It is very normal to feel anxious sometimes – everyone does – and you shouldn’t ever be embarrassed to talk about it. You might have anxiety about starting school, or about speaking in public, or about catching the bus on your own for the first time. Right now, a big reason you might feel anxious is the Coronavirus. We’ll look at some of the reasons why it happens, as well as some tips and advice to combat it.

Real danger

Before we start, it’s important to say that sometimes you might feel anxious for a serious reason – being afraid or anxious isn’t the same as being in danger. Someone may have hurt you or made you feel like they could, and those are very good reasons to feel worried or scared. If you’re scared that someone could cause you harm or if you’re in danger, it’s really important to talk to an adult you trust. You have the right to feel safe all the time, and finding a grown-up you can talk to about it can help you get to a safer situation. If you don’t have an adult, you feel you can trust, you can contact Childline services.

Why do we feel anxious?

When humans were developing, we had an alarm system in our brain that warned us about things that might hurt us, like if a tiger was around, if there was a fire, or if someone was coming to hurt us. It would release chemicals in our brain that made us very focused on the problem so we could solve it, and made our hearts beat faster and our breathing shallow to prepare us to run away. You might also feel like you need to go to the toilet (another way your body is preparing for a long run away from something scary), or that you get pins and needles (blood rushing to your legs and arms for the same reason). It might make you have a panic attack, or feel like you’re going crazy. But you’re not!

Almost everything you feel when you’re scared was designed to protect you for tens of thousands of years ago, but mostly just gets in the way now.
The problem today is that when you worry, there is no longer a tiger, but our brains release those same chemicals that would have kept our ancestors safe. It’s important to remember that all the feelings that anxiety brings to your body – your heart beating fast, not being able to think of anything else, feeling like you’re not breathing properly, as well as lots of other reactions – are completely normal. It can take some work to learn that when you feel those things, you don’t need to believe that it means danger. A lot of dealing with worry and anxiety is really just practising that thought: my body is feeling something very old that kept my ancestors safe.

If you do feel worried or anxious, it’s really important to:

1. Breathe in and out
2. Remember these are just chemicals and they can’t hurt you
3. Remember you are in control
4. Talk about it

That could be with a teacher, a parent, an older sibling, or any adult you trust. They can help you to remember that the danger you’re fearing is not real. Sometimes when we lose someone, are separated from them, or there’s a big change coming for us, we also feel those same feelings of anxiety – these are also normal, but once again it’s important to find someone you trust that you can talk to. Getting your emotions out is a big part of feeling better.

Tips and tricks

Breathing helps a lot

Find a place that you are comfortable and breathe in for a count of three, then breathe out for a count of three. Some people visualize a box shrinking and enlarging in time, and there are several apps and websites that you can breathe along with that can be very helpful. Remind yourself that it will pass, nothing is going to hurt you, and that what you’re feeling is normal.

Nervous and excited are the same thing
If you have butterflies in your stomach and feel nervous, remember that nervousness and excitement are actually the same chemical in your brain! If you tell yourself that you are excited for the speech you’re about to give or for the first day of school rather than nervous, then sometimes you can completely change how you feel.

Ask yourself questions
Question what you’re afraid of, and keep asking yourself questions until you realise that nothing will actually hurt you. Say you were afraid of talking in public. Why are you afraid?
“Why are you afraid? “ “I might make a mistake or say the wrong thing” “What would happen if you did that?” “People could laugh at me” “If people laugh at you what would happen then?” “I might look stupid and people might not like me” “Would you ever not be friends with someone if they said the wrong thing?” “Probably not unless they’d said something very mean on purpose” And so on. This works in a lot of situations – viewing your worries logically can be easier if you take on a different, calmer part of the conversation in your head.

What to do next.
Oftentimes, anxiety will come and go for all of us. When it starts to affect your life every day, it might be time to talk to a professional who can help you understand why you’re feeling like that. You can ask your GP any questions about anxiety, and they’ll be able to give you more information on who you can talk to.

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