Have you ever felt like this?
Sitting at my desk in my math class, I'm finding it hard to concentrate. The dry topic and droning voice of my teacher sends my mind elsewhere. I'm still upset about this morning. I don't know why my parents are always on my case.
They nag at me for everything -- to clean my room, to be home by my ridiculously early curfew, to get better grades, to figure out what I'm going to do with my life... I'm 16 years old! Seriously, I have more than enough time. And anyways, how can I possibly figure out what to do with my life when my boyfriend just broke up with me for another girl at school, and my best friend has ditched me for her new science pal?
I'm going to fail this math course and my parents are giving me heat. They don't listen.
Suddenly, my heart starts beat rapidly. I feel dizzy and start to sweat. I don't know what's happening with me. I try to focus again on the teacher, try to pretend this is all in my head. But it makes it worse, I feel like he is speaking in slow motion. Everything is in slow motion. My chest starts to feel heavy, like someone is sitting on me -- I can't breathe -- everything is getting blurry -- what's going on?!
I hear the echo of my friend's voice asking me if I'm OK. I feel like I'm dying. I need to go to the hospital. Someone call 9-1-1. Something is wrong.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is the body's way of responding to danger and in fact is quite normal. It is an automatic alarm that goes off when you feel threatened, afraid or under stress. It motivates us to study harder and warns us when we are in dangerous situations.
When you experience anxiety, your body's fight-flight-freeze response is triggered. You might feel like running from the situation (flight), yelling or crying (fight) or become more alert (freeze). However, this response can become a problem when the perceived danger is not actually dangerous at all.
Sometimes, the anxiety becomes so frequent and intense that it begins to take over our lives. Anxiety disorders can include panic attacks, phobias and social anxiety. In all of these cases, a person with an anxiety disorder has repeated anxious thoughts that interfere with daily life and is accompanied by noticeable, sometimes debilitating symptoms. It can affect how we think, feel and act.
Some causes of anxiety may include genetics (a family history of anxiety), a chemical imbalance in the brain or a significant stressful event(s) such as a death, break-up or ongoing bullying at school.
It may seem as though things will never get better. Know that anxiety is a treatable condition and that you can overcome this.
What does it feel like to have anxiety?
If you have anxiety or think you might, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Anxiety is the most common mental illness in Canada. In fact, one in four Canadians will have at least one anxiety disorder in their lifetime.
You may experience just a few or all of the symptoms of anxiety -- it is different for everyone and, because of this, it might feel like no one truly understands what you are experiencing. It can feel like everything inside is racing and tense and you're about to burst out of your skin. Or a tightness in your throat and a knot in your stomach, mixed with obsessive worry and fear. Or a wave of exhaustion and the inability to focus on anything, making you want to avoid everything and everyone. Each person's story is unique.
Do I have anxiety?
It is certainly not unusual to worry or get the odd case of butterflies. But if anxiety is affecting your life and you are missing out on opportunities because of fears and worries, it may be important to consider seeking help.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Do I worry excessively about the future or bad things happening (for example, earthquakes, a loved one getting hurt or sick, failing a test)?
- Do I often feel restless or on edge?
- Do I often feel uncomfortable in social situations or when talking to unfamiliar people?
- Do I spend at least an hour a day repeating things, such as washing, checking, arranging or counting?
These questions come from a quiz created by AnxietyBC, a leader in this area. If you answered yes to any of them or believe anxiety might be a problem for you, it is important that you talk to someone you trust like a parent, counsellor or trusted health professional.
Where can you go for help?
Of course, having the courage to ask for help can sometimes be easier said then done. This is especially true when your mental health and emotions are involved. Start by speaking to a trusted individual in your life: a parent, teacher, counsellor or health professional.
At times, you may feel overwhelmed or alone, and it may seem as though things will never get better. Know that anxiety is a treatable condition and that you can overcome this. This is about your happiness and well-being. By speaking up and asking for help, you can start on your road to recovery.
There are also great online resources to assist you in finding out what help is available in your community:
Strategies to manage anxiety
With the right treatment and support, you can learn to better control and recover from anxiety. The recovery process might be different for everyone, but learning how to identify triggers that cause you to feel anxiety and use strategies to lessen the negative responses are ways to successfully control symptoms.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one of the most common therapies used to help manage anxiety. It helps us to understand how thoughts and behaviours are connected to our feelings and how to change these negative responses into more realistic and positive problem-solving approaches.
You can actually start to practice some of the skills taught in CBT in your own home! Find a quiet, comfy place and try some of these exercises:
- Calm Breathing
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation ("tense and release")
- Realistic Thinking
We all know technology is cool (hey, you are probably reading this on your phone or iPad right now!), so mental health advocates have also developed a number of free apps to help you cope with anxiety and can be used in combination with other professional supports.
Here are some apps worth checking out:
- Mindshift is an app designed to help teens and young adults cope with anxiety.
- Headspace features "a gym membership for the mind" and includes meditation and mindfulness techniques to help manage stress and anxiety.
- Self-Help for Anxiety Management takes on a holistic view of anxiety treatment so you can learn how to better manage your emotions and physical reactions to them.
- What's Up? teaches CBT techniques to help you learn more about how you think and how your thoughts affect your emotions.
Take time for self-care
One of the most important ways to help manage anxiety is through self-care. Setting time aside each day to care for ourselves gives us more energy and focus in order to manage stress and make positive changes in our lives. Don't feel guilty for taking the time for you! Even if you have an incredibly long to-do list, take a few minutes in the day to reconnect with yourself. You deserve this time. And your mind and body will feel better for it!
Here are some self-care strategies you can try:
- Listen to music
- Keep a diary
- Talk to someone you trust or spend time with friends and family
- Get as much sleep as possible
- Exercise and eat a healthy diet
Like many things in life, managing anxiety takes practice so try not to be too hard on yourself if you don't feel better right away. Take things one day at a time and celebrate your accomplishments, both big and small. Know you are not alone. Don't be afraid to ask for help if your anxiety is affecting your life. There are people and places around you who want to help and support you in your journey to recovery and happiness.
If you or someone you know is at risk please contact your nearest Crisis Centre or call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 to speak to a counsellor.
Frame Of Mind is a new series inspired by The Maddie Project that focuses on teens and mental health. The series will aim to raise awareness and spark a conversation by speaking directly to teens who are going through a tough time, as well as their families, teachers and community leaders. We want to ensure that teens who are struggling with mental illness get the help, support and compassion they need. If you would like to contribute a blog to this series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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