understanding anxiety - for friends & family

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Fear is an emotion we have in response to real or perceived threat, whereas anxiety is the anticipation of a future threat.

Fear is an emotion we have in response to real or perceived threat, whereas anxiety is the anticipation of a future threat. It is common to experience anxiety when faced with stressful situations. This is normal and it’s our body’s way of preparing us to act in difficult situations. Anxiety can actually help us perform better by helping us feel alert and motivated.

People experiencing an anxiety disorder find that their anxiety gets in the way of their daily life and stops them from achieving their full potential. Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health problems experienced by young people. They are characterised by excessive fear and related difficulties that happen a lot of the time, feel overwhelming and interfere with daily life. Different situations or objects can cause different types of anxiety disorder, but they can all be treated.


Physical symptoms of anxiety can include:

  • a racing heart

  • faster breathing

  • feeling tense or having aches (especially neck, shoulders and back)

  • sweating or feeling dizzy

  • shaking

  • ‘butterflies’

  • feeling sick in the stomach.

Other symptoms of anxiety might also involve:

  • persistent worrying and excessive fears

  • being unable to control the worries

  • being unable to relax

  • avoiding challenging situations

  • being socially isolated or withdrawn

  • having trouble concentrating and paying attention

  • feeling annoyed, irritated or restless

  • poor sleep

  • problems with work, social or family life

  • panic attacks.

Panic attacks can occur as part of any anxiety disorder but not everyone with anxiety problems will experience them.

During a panic attack, a person may be suddenly overcome by strong fear and physical symptoms of anxiety, like a pounding heart, sweating, difficulty breathing, shaking, feeling dizzy or feeling sick. Panic attacks are usually short (about 10 minutes) and often feel overwhelming. Someone experiencing a panic attack might feel like they’re having a heart attack or an asthma attack, or they might feel like they’re losing control.

There are different types of anxiety disorders. Some common anxiety disorders are:

  • Generalised anxiety: Excessive worry about a variety of things, such as work or school performance. Someone experiencing generalised anxiety disorder may feel that their worries are out of control, feel tense and nervous most of the time, have trouble sleeping or find it hard to concentrate.

  • Social anxiety: Intense anxiety in social situations due to fear of embarrassment or judgment by others. This often leads a person to avoid social situations, such as talking in class, going to parties, being the centre of attention or meeting new people.

  • Separation anxiety: Intense anxiety about being away from loved ones, such as parents or siblings, or excessive worry about them being hurt.

  • Agoraphobia: Intense anxiety about using public transport, being in open spaces, being in enclosed spaces, being in a crowd or being alone outside of home.

  • Panic disorder: This is when a person has lots of panic attacks and experiences ongoing fears about having another panic attack.

  • Specific phobias: Intense fear of a particular situation or object (like small spaces or spiders) that leads a person to avoid the situation or object.

What can I do if I am concerned about my young person?

If you suspect your young person may be experiencing anxiety, it is important to let them know that you are aware of the changes you have noticed in them. Let them know that you are concerned and give them the opportunity to talk to you about it.

Take the time to listen to them and to understand their experiences. Check that you have understood them by asking questions. Avoid telling them to ‘just relax’ or ‘calm down’ – it’s not that easy. Reassure the young person they are not alone and let them know they can talk to you about what’s going on

Gently support and encourage them to face the situations or objects that make them anxious in their own time. Avoidance can perpetuate the anxiety because the young person never has an opportunity to learn that what they are afraid of may not happen or be as bad as they think. Encourage them to try some of our ways to overcome anxiety, and try to model healthy ways of managing your own anxiety and share these with your young person, as appropriate.

If the young person denies there is a problem, try to be patient. Some people need time or space before they feel ready to accept help. Be honest about why you are worried and tell them that you care for them. If they are not ready to talk, let them know you’d like to check in again soon if you're still concerned. Ensure the young person knows you love and care for them and that they can speak to you anytime about how they’re feeling (it’s always helpful to remind people you love them).

Learning more about anxiety will help you to understanding what your young person is going though and how you can help you to support them.

Related problems

Many young people experiencing an anxiety disorder may also experience symptoms of depression. Some young people may also drink alcohol or take drugs to ease the discomfort or make them feel more confident. But relying on alcohol or drugs can make things much worse in the long run and cause long-term physical and mental health problems.

When should I encourage professional help?

If your young person doesn’t seem to be improving over time, or if things seem to be getting worse, encourage them to seek professional help. You could support them to visit their local doctor or their nearest headspace centre, or contact eheadspace for online and phone support. If they are attending school or university, they may also be able to access a student counselling or wellbeing service.

An important part of professional support is often psychological therapy. This might involve helping the young person to understand their experiences of anxiety and to change unhelpful thinking and behaviour patterns. Medications can also helpful if needed.

The good news is that most young people with anxiety respond well to treatment. While their anxiety may still come and go from time to time, with support your young person can get back to enjoying life again. Remember, getting support and treatment early can make a big difference when dealing with anxiety, and help to prevent further episodes of anxiety in future.

Looking after yourself

Supporting a young person experiencing anxiety can be challenging. It is important that you take care of yourself, while being a supportive carer.  Being at your best means that you can offer greater patience and a more considered approach as to how you can help others.

Ensure that you take care of your own physical and mental health by getting good sleep, doing regular exercise, having a healthy diet, limiting alcohol consumption and keeping up enjoyable and relaxing activities. Looking after yourself in these ways will also encourage your young person to do the same.

Remember, professional support is available for both you and your young person. For more advice and guidance on how you can best support your young person, visit the websites below or contact eheadspace and talk to one of our family and friends specialists.

Other useful websites

The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.

Last reviewed 26 June 2017

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