What is anxiety?

Find everything you need to know about anxiety and anxiety disorders in teens and young adults, including what it is, signs and symptoms of anxiety, types of anxiety disorders, causes and risk factors for anxiety, anxiety screening and diagnosis, and treatment and recovery. 

What is anxiety in teens and young adults? How common is it?

Anxiety is a common emotion that is characterized by persistent feelings of worry, uneasiness, or fear. Anxiety differs from stress in that stress is your body’s response to a specific situation and is resolved once that situation ends. Stress is a common experience – it’s your body’s response to some sort of external trigger that generates fear or causes anxiety. It could be concern about an upcoming exam or due to an unresolved argument with a friend, for example. This kind of stress, while it can feel worrisome in the moment, can be a good thing, helping us to develop new coping skills and grow our self-confidence with managing different types of situations. Anxiety, on the other hand, doesn’t have a clear trigger or solution. It can feel like you’re carrying a weight without knowing what the weight is or why you’re the one carrying it. 

GIF - Anxiety - Carrying anxiety

Feelings of anxiety can persist – for days, weeks, months or even years – without ever really going away and without a clear reason. When this happens, symptoms of anxiety can worsen, be difficult to manage, and interfere with your ability to maintain your daily routine and engage in activities you typically enjoy. These types of experiences with anxiety are often known as anxiety disorders – the most common type of mental health challenge in the United States faced by 31.9% of young people between the ages of 13-18 years old and 22.3% of those between the age of 18-29 years old.

If you think you, or someone you care for, are struggling with anxiety, it may be time to consider reaching out for support, whether that’s letting a parent or ally know what has been going on or exploring professional support options.

Signs & symptoms of anxiety in teens and young adults

Signs and symptoms of anxiety vary from person to person. Most often, experiencing occasional anxiety can cause feelings of nervousness, worry, dread, or panic about something expected to happen. For those of us living with anxiety disorders, these types of feelings may be more intense and longer-lasting, causing panic attacks, fatigue, unexplained body aches, and insomnia, to name a few symptoms. 

Sometimes, anxiety can cause changes to our typical attitude or behavior and lead to challenges at home, at school or work, or in social situations. For example, let’s say you’re feeling anxious about playing well in an upcoming basketball game. If you’re experiencing anxiety, you might find an excuse not to play – saying you’re feeling under the weather, for instance. In more intense cases, you may even quit playing basketball altogether. 

While anxiety is common, particularly in reaction to stressful situations, it is important to be aware of the symptoms and signs of anxiety disorders. If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these signs or symptoms, it may be time to check in with them, or reach out to someone you trust for support

Symptoms of anxiety can appear in a number of ways, including affecting your emotional state or even your physical body. Some common experiences associated with anxiety disorders include the following:

  • Nervousness, restlessness, or worry

  • Feelings of panic or dread

  • Feelings of fear or danger

  • Difficulty focusing on anything other than what you’re worried about

  • Rapid heart rate

  • Rapid breathing or hyperventilation

  • Panic attacks, or a sudden feeling of extreme fear or distress that can include palpitations, sweating, shaking or trembling, shortness of breath, dizziness or light-headedness, chest pain or tightness, feeling hot or cold, numbness or tingling sensations

  • Increased sweating, trembling, or muscle twitches

  • Insomnia or lethargy

  • Digestive problems

  • Unexplained body aches or spins

  • Obsessions about certain ideas

  • Performing certain behaviors or activities over and over again

  • Intense nervousness or worry surrounding something that happened in the past

While symptoms of anxiety are the things we feel or experience ourselves, signs refer to the outward signals that may indicate to others that something is going on with our mental health. Here are a few signs that a teen or young adult may be experiencing intense anxiety or an anxiety disorder.

Someone with intense anxiety or experiencing an anxiety disorder may:

  • Avoid situations that make them nervous

  • Worry about and imagine all the bad things that could happen (even if some of those things don’t really make sense)

  • Experience heightened worry and nervousness about particular situations – more than what is typical

  • Have difficulty controlling their worry or calming themselves down

  • Feel too afraid to do certain things – more than what is typical 

  • Experience unexplained body pain or aches or digestive problems

  • Have trouble sleeping or eating

  • Have panic attacks

“I call it the 'black hole', my very own mind spiral. After all, once I was in, there was no getting out again – at least not until reality found some way to break the hold… Despite my best efforts to stay afloat, I felt like I was barely keeping my head above water, depleted and drained by perpetual worry, insomnia, and eventual rejection in some form or another.”

- , Director, Strong365 Community & Co-Founder, Strong365 Lab

Types of anxiety disorders

There are many types of anxiety disorders and sometimes it’s possible to experience more than one at the same time. If you or someone you know is getting support for anxiety, there are a few of the common types of anxiety disorders that you might hear about. 

Note: Some of these disorders may sound familiar, including “OCD” and “PTSD,” because they’re sometimes used in everyday conversation to describe negative behaviors or feelings For those of us living with these conditions, however, even lighthearted comments like this can sting. We hope learning more about these common conditions can help us all communicate more compassionately.

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a condition where a person experiences intense worry and nervousness surrounding everyday events and cannot manage their anxiety. Typically, individuals with GAD will experience high levels of anxiety on most days for at least 6 months.

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a condition where intense feelings of anxiety lead to “obsessions,” or frequent, stressful, and unwanted thoughts that cause you to perform “compulsions,” or repetitive behaviors or rituals. Examples of compulsions include washing and cleaning repeatedly; erasing, rewriting, or starting over a lot; checking and re-checking if something is closed, locked, clean, or finished; touching, tapping, or stepping in an unusual way or a set number of times; avoiding things, such as numbers or colors that seem unlucky.

  • Panic disorder is a condition where an individual experiences panic attacks, or sudden feelings of extreme anxiety, distress, or fear, repeatedly. These experiences may lead to worsened anxiety about recurring panic attacks and cause them to avoid situations where they have previously occurred.

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder(PTSD) is a condition that typically occurs after a young person lives through or witnesses an event that could have caused them or someone else harm. Traumatic events can include accidents or natural disasters, sexual or physical abuse, school or neighborhood violence, sudden loss of a parent or loved one, being the target of hate or threats of harm. Some individuals with PTSD may experience difficult memories or flashbacks of the event causing intense anxiety as though the trauma is still happening.

  • Social anxiety disorder or social phobia is a condition that causes an intense fear of social situations. This includes heightened worry about being judged, embarrassed or rejected in public settings. Sometimes, social anxiety disorder can lead to complete avoidance of social situations. 

  • Specific phobias refers to conditions that cause intense anxiety about specific objects, situations or events. Common phobias include claustrophobia (fear of small, enclosed spaces), and acrophobia (fear of heights). 

This list reflects the most common types of anxiety disorders, but does not include every type.

Causes and risk factors for anxiety disorders

The causes of anxiety disorders are still being explored. However, there are a few factors that are known to contribute to the development of and increase the likelihood of developing anxiety disorders.

The following factors have been found to be associated with the development of anxiety disorders.

  • Chronic stress: Severe or long-lasting stress can impact your brain’s ability to respond. Learn more about chronic stress.  

  • Trauma: Experiencing or witnessing traumatic events in childhood may activate an anxiety disorder, particularly in individuals who were already at higher risk for them. (See risk factors below.) Traumatic events can include living through or witnessing incidents that caused you or someone else harm, including vehicle accidents, sexual or physical abuse, fires, school or neighborhood violence, sudden loss of a parent or loved one, being the target of hate or threats of harm. 

  • Genetic factors: Like eye color, anxiety disorders often run in families. You may inherit them from one or both parents. 

  • Medical causes: Sometimes, anxiety is associated with an underlying health issue, such as a thyroid problem, chronic pain, or substance use. Anxiety can also be a side effect of some medications.

The following factors may increase your likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder.

  • Trauma: Children who experienced or witnessed traumatic events are more prone to developing an anxiety disorder.

  • Stress buildup: A big event or a buildup of smaller life situations may trigger intense anxiety. This can include a death in the family, concern about performance in school or activities, and ongoing worry about family relationships, for example.

  • Personality traits: People with certain personality traits, such as shyness or nervousness, are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder.

  • Genetic factors: Anxiety disorders often run in families. 

  • Environmental factors :Environment and external stressors such as poverty or discrimination, one’s cultural or religious upbringing, a person’s family composition and relationships, school environments, and other childhood experiences.

  • Other mental health conditions: Individuals with other mental health conditions, including depression, often also have an anxiety disorder.

  • Substance use: Drug or alcohol use, misuse, or withdrawal can cause or worsen anxiety.

Diagnosis and screening for anxiety disorders

If you or someone you know has been experiencing signs or symptoms of an anxiety disorder for more than two weeks, it is probably a good time to seek professional support. A therapist who is trained to support someone with anxiety can help you reframe unhelpful thought patterns and ease the emotional burden of anxiety, as well as teach new skills and tools to cope with symptoms.

If you’re not sure you’re ready for professional support, it may be helpful to talk to a trusted ally or try peer support. You can also find support options for a variety of needs on our resources we love page. Or, visit Mental Health America to take a free mental health screening online. 

To receive a diagnosis for an anxiety disorder, you should reach out to a mental health provider (psychiatrist or psychologist). To make a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, your mental health professional may ask about your personal history in addition to your moods, worries, eating habits, and substance use. The diagnosis process can also sometimes include a physical exam to rule out any other health problems that may be causing your symptoms. 

It’s important to remember that whether or not you receive a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, your experiences and feelings are important and valid. Our mental health is constantly changing and is affected by so many things both within and outside of our control. If you have been feeling more stressed than usual lately, you might benefit from practicing a few self-care strategies, chatting with a peer who gets it, or exploring professional support options. Learn more about various resources available to you

If you receive a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, and you’re worried about what it means, try to keep in mind what a diagnosis is. At the end of the day, a diagnosis is a label used by health professionals to describe a particular cluster of symptoms and experiences. It does not mean anything about you except to say that you are having these particular experiences that fit under the label of “anxiety disorder.” The silver lining is that you’ve already done the hard part by taking the steps to take care of yourself – you’re now on a journey to working toward your goals and feeling better.

"Writing this today, a few years later, I can’t tell you that my anxiety has been cured. I can’t tell you that I’ve rid myself of the black hole or that I’ve even mastered controlling it. I very much have not. I continue to go to therapy every week, I continue to find myself in situations that activate my mind spiral, and I continue to manage my anxiety to the best of my ability. It’s an equilibrium that ebbs, flows, and includes good days, bad ones, and lots of different ones in between… but at least now I can say for certain that I’m getting somewhere."

- Mili Mehta, Director, Strong365 Community & Co-Founder, Strong365 Lab

Treatment for and recovering from anxiety disorders

Let’s first acknowledge that anxiety disorders are not only common, they’re also treatable. But, managing and recovering from an anxiety disorder does most often require reaching out for support. Check out our blog for tips for talking to a trusted ally about what you’re experiencing.

If you have received a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder and you're exploring treatment options, it’s important to remember that no two experiences with and recovery journeys from anxiety disorders look the same. What works for one person may or may not work for the next. But here is what you should know.

  1. Research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is highly effective in reducing symptoms, and that therapy, medication (if necessary), or a combination of both are the most effective ways to relieve symptoms of anxiety and improve your ability to engage in life in the way you choose. You should work with your mental health provider to determine the best approach for you. 

  2. Lifestyle changes can make a huge impact on how you’re feeling. Taking steps to alleviate stress, practicing self-care, reaching out to your support network, and ensuring your daily routine allows for healthy habits can go a long way to helping you feel better.

  3. Although treatment is highly effective, anxiety disorders can be chronic for some people, becoming a part of life that you learn to cope with. Developing and maintaining a wellness plan, including regular check-ins with your health care professional and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, can help you manage symptoms when they arise. 

Recovering from an anxiety disorder and learning how to cope with your anxieties and stressors can be challenging. Sometimes it requires a little bit (or a lot) of trial and error to find out what strategies best meet your needs. Just remember, where you are in your journey with mental health and no matter how you’re feeling, you are not alone. Check out our stories and social media to hear from others who have been there too. 

"My experience has made a huge impact on my interests and my identity. As I battled through my challenges, I learned that music-related coping skills work best for me. Playing music and songwriting are passions of mine that I might not have found if I didn’t face the struggles that I experienced."

- Christine Frey, Advisory Board Member