The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Nicola Harvey

Understanding anxiety in children and young people

Anxiety is a normal feeling and can help protect us from danger. But when and why does it become a problem? Nicola Harvey explores some common forms of anxiety.

The pandemic has impacted everyone. The new norm means unexpected school closures, social distancing in public spaces, children being away from their friends for long periods of time, lateral flow testing, lockdown birthdays – and the list goes on! Understandably, all this uncertainty whilst growing up continues to impact the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people.

According to NHS Digital, in 2020 one in six children aged 5-16 years were identified as having a mental health issue. Their findings pointed out that ‘children and young people with a probable mental health disorder were more likely to say that lockdown had made their life worse (54.1% of 11-16 year old, and 59.0% of 17-22 year olds), than those unlikely to have a mental disorder (32.2% and 37.3% respectively)’.

We all have mental health and just like our physical health it’s something that needs to be looked after. Anxiety is one of the most common forms of mental health issues in Britain and is often a direct response to what’s happening in people’s lives and developmental traits.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of fear, worry or dread and the thought that something bad is going to happen. We all experience anxiety from time to time. Anxious thoughts and feelings can be mild and sometimes overwhelming, but are natural responses to life’s events.

Anxiety only becomes a problem when the anxious thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations are persistently getting in the way of living our best life

Anxiety often presents itself with physiological symptoms in the body like sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, butterflies in the stomach and perhaps the feeling of the world speeding up or slowing down.

Think back to one of your students’ first day at school (before lockdown closures). Remember how anxious they were to walk into the classroom for the first time, make eye contact, meet new friends and join in on unfamiliar activities. Anxiety provoking experiences may have prompted the student to consider:

  • avoiding school altogether – flight
  • resisting any new activities by challenging them – fight
  • being in complete denial and look shell shocked like a rabbit in headlights – freeze.

Now fast forward a couple of months and notice how your student overcame their initial anxieties and are more settled and confident with school routines.

Anxiety is normal. It only becomes a problem when the anxious thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations are persistently getting in the way of a child or young person living their best life. We need anxiety to work for children (e.g. reacting quickly to a fire alarm at school) rather than against them, so it’s important for the adults around them to talk openly by normalising anxiety and use supportive strategies as early as possible.

It’s okay to be anxious from time to time; model practical ways to cope with anxiety before it becomes a serious problem

Forms of anxiety

Children need consistency, boundaries and routines in order to build resilience, develop key life skills and to grow into self-assured individuals. However, experiences such as the following all impact on what it means to grow up as a young person today:

  • the uncertainty of transitioning into and out of school due to the pandemic
  • children witnessing adults experience heightened levels of anxiety
  • changes in societal structures and much more.

Over time, these uncertainties can result in minor or temporary anxious thoughts, feelings and sensations, which may develop into the conditions shown in the following table.

Note that many children and young people with underlying developmental conditions like an ADHD diagnosis or neurodiversity have been affected even more by the pandemic, as they are susceptible to developed forms of anxiety such as those included in the table below.

Type of anxiety Description Example
Generalised anxiety Exaggerated and persistent feelings getting in the way of day-to-day life. Constantly feeling anxious about the lateral flow testing and being convinced they have Covid-19.
Separation anxiety Afraid of being separated from a particular person, group of people or even a pet.  Returning to school and feeling anxious about being away from their family members.
Social anxiety Being self-conscious in social situations. Feelings of anxiety around large crowds in the classroom or lunch hall.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) Repetitive thoughts (obsessions) or behaviour (compulsions).  A student keeps checking their school bag to ensure they have not left anything at home.
Panic attacks Sudden intense feelings of fear or discomfort, with racing thoughts and physical symptoms like shortness of breath, heart palpitations and dizziness. Hearing there will be a test at school but there’s no time to study. The young person temporarily experiences a sudden rush of intense anxiety where they feel like they can’t breathe, are out of control and tremble until the feelings calm down.
Phobias Feelings of danger connected to an event, person or thing, which are not dangerous.  Being scared of heights (acrophobia) so a student avoids going to lessons in the classroom on the top floor of the school building.

Supporting a young person with anxiety

Early intervention is key to children and young people’s personal growth and emotional resilience. It’s important for adults to normalise that it’s okay to be anxious from time to time, talk openly and model practical ways to cope with anxiety before it becomes a serious problem.

For many young people the impact of the pandemic has been incredibly overwhelming, so support from a CBT therapist, counsellor or another form of professional guidance has been a much-needed effective route in helping them process and talk through their feelings.

In my next blog, I will share some practical strategies on ways to support children and young people experiencing anxiety. This includes breathing techniques, understanding neuroscience and mindfulness-based CBT tools to support mental health and wellbeing.

If you notice any of the symptoms above in any of the young people you work with, and feel you need support, consult your school’s mental health lead, school nurse or a member of the senior leadership team. See below for further reading and supportive resources. 

Support for mental health leads

The next Mental Health & Wellbeing in Schools conference takes place in November 2021. Join us for reflections on the impact of the pandemic so far and implications for mental health practice in education. 

Further reading and resources

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