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Introduction to adolescent mental health
Introduction to adolescent mental health

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2 Anxiety

Anxiety is a normal response to situations that may threaten wellbeing. Signs of anxiety usually include feelings of being frightened, worried, nervous or panicky, and these feelings can be useful if you need to respond to a threatening situation.

A piece of artwork with seven different faces depicting different facial expressions. The idea is to illustrate depression.
Figure 3: An illustration of depression

It is perfectly normal to feel anxious before an exam, the results of which can determine future opportunities. It is also normal to feel anxious in an encounter with a growling dog, which could pose a threat to your physical safety. Many of us will empathise with the feelings of anxiety that can be heightened during a viral pandemic that also pose real threats.

If anxiety persists, young people may have difficulties sleeping, eating and being able to concentrate. When anxiety becomes a more generalised feeling that interferes with everyday life over a lengthy period, it is no longer a useful feeling and it can become a mental health problem. In the next activity, you’ll read about Kim who is having a problem with anxiety.

Activity 2: Kim’s anxiety

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Read the case of Kim, who is experiencing problems with anxiety. Then, jot down some notes in response to the following questions:

  • Which aspects of Kim’s experience might lead you to believe she is ‘struggling’ rather than ‘coping’ with anxiety?
  • Are there any aspects of her experience you might consider ‘normal’?
  • What makes it difficult to decide?

Kim, who is 15, feels stressed and exhausted all of the time, sleeps badly, and has frequent headaches. She worries persistently about her schoolwork. Each morning on a school day, she gets a ‘nervous tummy’ and sometimes she stays off school because of this. The problem started a couple of years ago when her parents were having terrible rows, at which point she felt incapacitated with anxiety. Since then, her parents have split up and she now lives with her grandparents.

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  • Signs that Kim is ‘struggling’ include her exhaustion, headaches, taking time off school with minor symptoms. Her worries about school work, which could be normal for many, sound as though they are becoming a problem that she cannot resolve alone.
  • Kim’s ‘nervous tummy’ is a common experience for many people, young and old when feeling excited or challenged by a situation. Perhaps in her anxious state she is interpreting it as a bad thing rather than recognising its power simply to signal that she is facing a challenge.
  • Everyone faces anxious situations, and problematic anxiety develops over time, so the whole picture is important when deciding whether anxiety is a problem.

Feelings of anxiety may follow life events and certain trigger experiences. For many, although not all young people, learning how to regulate and manage their feelings can be helpful. Session 6 will introduce ways of helping young people.