Everybody feels a bit of anxiety from time to time, but if you’ve noticed that your anxiety has grown out of control, it might be time to ask for some help.
Anxiety disorders are very common – the charity Anxiety UK says that more than one in ten people are likely to have a ‘disabling anxiety disorder’ at some stage in their life. Although anxiety can feel very overwhelming, there are plenty of ways you can get help and manage your symptoms.
We’ve spoken to a couple of mental health experts – qualified counsellor and psychotherapist Laura Hordern and Lisa Thomson, a mental health trainer from the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust who's also a family therapist and psychotherapist with the NHS – for some advice on dealing with anxiety, and put together a few resources to help if you’re worried about your mental health.
What is anxiety?
“Anxiety is our body’s natural response to threat,” says Lisa Thomson from the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust.
“We all feel anxious from time to time especially if important things are happening, for example exams or upsetting things in our families. It is a feeling of fear or dread about an event that is coming up, or fear that something bad will happen.
“If this happens most or every day, feels too big to mange and out of proportion with the situation, and if these feelings are stopping you getting on with life and causing you distress, you may be experiencing an anxiety disorder.”
There are lots of different ways to experience anxiety, and many types of anxiety disorders – the mental health charity Mind lists some of the most commonly diagnosed ones here. You can also find descriptions of different types of anxiety disorders on the NHS website.
What are the signs and symptoms of anxiety?
There are a few different ways that anxiety can show – “this can be as changes in your body, in being constantly scared or changes in your behavior such as becoming overly careful or avoiding things that trigger anxiety,” Lisa explains.
“Adrenaline is triggered by fear and can make us feel physically unwell including nausea, headaches, stomach pain and light-headedness. We might notice feeling tired, on edge, restless or irritable, feel unable to concentrate or make decision. We can find ourselves avoiding situations or putting off doing thing things we are worried about or be repeatedly checking things or seeking reassurance from others,” Lisa says.
“For many of us these feelings will pass but for some they carry on, becoming a bigger problem which is upsetting and gets in the way of important things in our life.”
Although there are many different types of anxiety disorders, the NHS website says that your GP would be able to diagnose you with generalised anxiety disorder based on your symptoms, which may include:
- Feeling restless or on edge
- Being irritable
- Getting tired easily
- Having difficulty concentrating or feeling your mind goes blank
- Having difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep
- Having tense muscles.
What should I do if I’m feeling anxious?
“The great news is that there are lots of things to try to help manage anxiety,” says Lisa.
“Many young people say that the most difficult thing to do is to let others know what is happening to them and to seek help. It is important to seek support as soon as anxiety is upsetting you or leaves you feeling that you can’t cope in important situations like school.
“It is much easier to sort out if it is caught early.”
You might want to tell your parents how you’re feeling, or confide in a friend or trusted teacher. The next step after that might be to make an appointment with your GP to think about the best way to treat your anxiety.
How can anxiety be treated?
“Anxiety is treated using a talking treatment known as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT),” says Lisa.
“This treatment focuses on the links between our thoughts, feelings, the feelings in our bodies and what we do when faced with our fear.
“It is based on the idea that we trick our healthy ‘adrenaline’ response by thinking frightening thoughts which lead us to feel unable to cope with our fears. This feels so awful that we stay away from situations that leave us feeling that way and this can make the problem worse.”
The NHS website says that it if you’re diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, “you’ll usually be advised to try psychological treatment before you’re prescribed medication” and that CBT is “one of the most effective treatments”.
“It usually involves meeting with a specially trained and accredited therapist for a one-hour session every week for three to four months,” the NHS says.
You’ll be able to get CBT on the NHS by either going to see your GP and asking for a referral or referring yourself here.
Tips on dealing with anxiety
There are some things that you can do to help keep your anxiety under control.
“It is really important to begin to get to know your body, behavior and how anxiety is affecting you,” Lisa explains.
“This can be hard at first but spotting the first signs of trouble is essential in learning how to catch worry before it overwhelms you. Getting to know our responses by keeping a diary of situations where anxiety is high will be useful. Noticing thoughts, emotions, physical feelings and what you feel.
“Staying away from worrying situations may make anxiety worse because we don’t learn that we can cope. By slowly building up time in worrying situations, anxious feelings will gradually reduce and you will see these situations are okay. When we avoid scary situations we don’t learn that can manage.”
“Deep breathing exercises can really help with anxiety. If you are feeling anxious just focusing on your breath can really help, and if you slow your breath down so that you are breathing deeply, this can help to alleviate the physical feelings of anxiety,” says Laura Hordern, who’s a counsellor and psychotherapist with over ten years of experience working in mental health.
“Our mind can play tricks on us when we are anxious, and we can quickly jump to conclusions about things that may not actually be the case – try to challenge your thoughts and question whether they are facts or not before you accept them as true,” Laura finishes.
“Consider what you are thinking in frightening situations,” comments Lisa. “Are the thoughts facts? If you notice thoughts like ‘I can’t cope’, try choosing to think ‘this feels awful but I have managed this before”, ‘is thinking like this helping me?’ or ‘is there another way to look at this?’”
How could I help a friend who’s dealing with anxiety?
“Many people feel embarrassed by their fears and may not want to let others know,” says Lisa. “Sometimes the things we fear don’t make sense to other people. Try not to judge, listen carefully and try to understand – even if you don’t. Listening really carefully feels really supportive to us all.”
“Try to avoid telling them it will be alright, or that they have nothing to be afraid of,” Laura advises, as “this can make them feel like their feelings don’t matter. Instead, let them know that you are with them and that you will work it out together – this will reassure them that they are not alone.”
“Ask your friend what you can do to help, as they may know what helps them through their anxiety. If they don’t, that’s okay – just knowing that you are there for them can be a great help in itself,” Laura says.
“Encourage the person to get support from family and help providers in school and elsewhere,” adds Lisa. “Look at trusted websites with them and research sources of support including self-help. It might be helpful to offer to help them to make appointments, go along with them initially tp support and help with any plans that are made.”
“Anxiety can leave people feeling isolated. Reach out to them and continue to include them in plans – even if they don’t come. Spend time with them doing something you both enjoy.”
Anxiety UK – 03444 775 774
Anxiety UK have information about lots of different types of anxiety disorders, as well as an Infoline you can call on 03444 775 774 and a text service you can reach on 07537 416 905. You can also email [email protected] for help.
Campaign Against Living Miserable (CALM) – 0800 58 58 58
Childline – 0800 1111
You can contact Childline on 0800 1111, chat to a counsellor one-to-one online or send them an email. You can get in touch with Childline about anything that’s worrying you, and it’s all totally confidential – you don’t even have to give your name if you don’t want to.
Childline also has a section of its website specifically covering exam stress and pressure.
The Mix – 0808 808 4994
The Mix provide help and support to under 25s. You can call them on 0808 808 4994, email them here, use their crisis messenger for 24/7 support, chat one-on-one to a trained team member online or use The Mix counselling service for short-term help (usually around eight counselling sessions of 50 minutes).
The Mix also has resources for dealing with exam stress.
Nightline is a listening, emotional support, information and supplies service, run by students for students.
Papyrus – 0800 068 41 41
Papyrus provide support for those dealing with suicide, depression or emotional distress – particularly teenagers and young adults.
You can call the Papyrus HOPELINE on 0800 068 41 41.
The Samaritans – 116 123
stem4 is a charity supporting teenage mental health. You can find resources to help you understand more about anxiety on their website.
Student Minds are the UK’s student mental health charity. They run support groups across the country and are at the forefront of creating campaigns to raise awareness of the current state of student mental health.
Young Minds are committed to helping young people improve their mental health. If you’re in crisis, you can text the YoungMinds Crisis Messenger for 24/7 support – for urgent help text YM to 85258.
If you need urgent help, please call one of the helplines below and contact a health professional.
UK - Samaritans (116 123)
USA - The National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1 800 273 8255)
Australia - Lifeline (13 11 14)
Hotlines in other countries can be found here.