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Peace of Mind: Anxiety

What is anxiety? 

Anxiety is a natural reaction to perceived threats or important events. In fact, we want to embrace and experience anxiety because the feeling is the body’s warning system that tells us to be careful or to pay attention. From jumping out of the way of a speeding car to meeting an important deadline, anxiety signals the alarm to keep us engaged with what is going on around us. Our anxiety alarm system has three automatic responses: 

  • Fight – as a matter of survival, we would fight off the threat.
  • Flight – to save ourselves from a threat, we’d run away. 
  • Freeze – to go unnoticed, we’d stay very still until the threat passes.

These three reactions are part of the F3 (fight/flight/freeze) response system that helps keep us safe. When faced with danger, our thoughts focus on the threat, our body gets ready (e.g., heart beats faster, muscles tense), and we automatically engage in one of these responses.  

Let’s ask an expert about anxiety

For the purposes of understanding this topic in a bit more detail, we thought we’d ask an expert. We reached out to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), and they put us in touch with Dr. Karen AuYeung, a registered psychologist at North Shores Stress and Anxiety Clinic in North Vancouver and the Youth Clinical Consultant for the CMHA’s BounceBack program (www.bounceback.ca). Here’s what Dr. AuYeung had to say when we asked her about anxiety. 

Q – CSC: 
What can guidance counsellors do to help students experiencing anxiety? 

A – Dr. AuYeung: 
Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time—this may feel like nervousness, worry, fear, or stress. To a degree, counsellors can reassure students that it is natural to feel some anxiety in response to unfamiliar or challenging situations, such as writing an important test or preparing for a major presentation. You may check in to see if the student wants help with facing their fears. We can also model adaptive strategies to work through anxiety, such as breathing, taking a break, re-focusing on the task at hand, or challenging the anxious thought. Remember, the goal may not be to get rid of their anxiety, but to help them tolerate it and function as best as they can!

Q – CSC: 
When does anxiety become problematic?

A – Dr. AuYeung: 
Sometimes our F3 alarm system goes off when there isn’t a real threat —like a “false alarm.” Anxiety may be a problem when it: 

  • Is constant. 
  • Is out of proportion with the situation(s).
  • Starts to interfere with the student’s ability to concentrate or you notice their grades decline.
  • Impacts their sleep, mood, appetite, or confidence
  • Stops them from going to school, seeing friends, or engaging in their usual activities.
  • Leads to a student becoming withdrawn or down; or irritable or tense.
  • Leads to physical symptoms, such as headache, upset stomach, or fatigue.
  • Causes a student to need constant reassurance or express hypothetical worries or “what ifs” about the future.
  • Results in panic attacks fairly regularly.

In these cases, we can still normalize that many adolescents experience significant anxiety or anxiety disorders, and they are not alone. The good news is that there are many treatments and strategies to help manage anxiety. 

If you think that anxiety is becoming a problem for a student, ask them whether they have talked to their caregiver or other trusted adult about how they are feeling. Suggest that caregivers book an appointment with their family doctor who can help them assess whether an anxiety disorder is present and assist with a referral to a mental health provider if needed. 

Q – CSC: 
What is the difference between anxiety and panic?   

A – Dr. AuYeung:
While anxiety and panic are often used interchangeably, panic or panic attacks refer to a surge of anxiety symptoms that typically come on quickly and reach their peak within 5-10 minutes. The peak typically lasts no more than 10 minutes, although it may take a long time for all the symptoms to subside. While anxiety can feel quite intense, it generally comes on more gradually and can last for extended periods of time. 

When we are anxious, we may or may not experience physical symptoms. Panic attacks always include physical symptoms, such as racing heart, sweating, shortness of breath, chest tightness, dizziness, or stomach upset. They often come along with a feeling that we are losing control, “going crazy”, or having a heart attack. Panic attacks often come out of the blue but can occur in response to an identifiable trigger (e.g., taking a test, seeing a dog). Panic attacks are fairly common and do not mean a person has a panic disorder. Panic attacks also become problematic when we are afraid of the panic attacks themselves (rather than the trigger), we become regularly worried about having them, and are afraid something will happen because of them like fainting or dying. The Anxiety Canada website has some excellent resources on panic disorder.1 

Q – CSC: 
What can guidance counsellors do to help students suffering with anxiety? 

A – Dr. AuYeung:
I think a big thing youth have reported to me when they’ve had positive experiences with guidance counsellors is that they were there to listen, empathize, and normalize that they’re not alone in their anxiety. Having someone provide a safe environment for them to express how they’re feeling can be a very powerful tool in helping them to manage their anxiety. 

Next steps

Guidance counsellors are well positioned to help students sort through their anxiety and see what steps can be taken next. In cases of mild anxiety, we might recommend these resources: 

Anxiety Canada (https://www.anxietycanada.com/) has quite a few articles that counsellors and students can read to help them with specific anxiety related issues. They also have an app—Mindshift CBT—that provides mental health strategies like relaxation techniques, coping statements, journaling, and meditation.

The CMHA’s BounceBack program provides young people with online workbooks, video resources, and one-on-one coaching as part of a professionally designed self-help program. In fact, BounceBack has resources that specifically targets anxiety, in addition to a host of other topics. Their focus is on helping young people who are experiencing low mood, stress, or worry.

If a guidance counsellor recommends resources like these, they should be prepared to sit down and review the material with the student. This will help to put the student at ease with the programming and provide them with encouragement as they begin the process of self-examination. 

Final thoughts

Anxiety is natural. It’s something we all experience. With a little help, and a little education, guidance counsellors can work with students to understand mild anxiety symptoms. If anxiety grows into something that becomes less manageable, the guidance counsellor may need to refer the student to the school psychologist, social worker, or child youth worker. If the anxiety is overwhelming, professional care will be required and the counsellor can make the recommendation accordingly. In other words, no matter what shape or form the anxiety takes, the guidance counsellor can always work with the student to come up with an appropriate course of action. This will hopefully provide them with a little peace of mind. 

1 https://www.anxietycanada.com/disorders/panic-disorder/

By: Sean Dolan