Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – the video

Feeling panicky or low with no specific cause – strategies

As today is the start of Children’s Mental Health Week, I thought I’d answer this question on my blog from Alex:

“Which strategies are helpful to young people who struggle with problems like panic attacks / low mood but can’t actually identify the cause of this – I do try and break things down (school / home/ parents / friends/image) but if they say none of these particularly stick out, have you any suggestions?”

Panic attacks and low mood are obviously two different things, though someone might suffer from both of them. I’m going to tackle them together and also reframe the question slightly to talk about feeling panicky or anxious and low mood, rather than panic attacks.

But don’t panic: I’m going to talk about panic attacks separately on Thursday!

So, anxiety and/or low mood with no known cause.

It’s OK: we’re human

The starting point is to state what feels obvious to us as adults but which young people often don’t realise: it’s very common – one might even say “normal” sometimes to feel panicky or anxious or to experience low mood and not to know what the cause is. I sometimes “just feel anxious”, inexplicably. Or I feel down, gloomy, cloudy, and I don’t know why.

Realising that this does not mean I have something wrong with me is a very good start. I can then tell myself that I’ll soon feel better or I can take steps to feel better by doing any of the healthy things I know help raise my mood or calm me down. (See list further down.)

Why might it be happening just now?

The next step is to think about the possible reasons why this is happening just now. I might not be able to work out which of these it is but here are some ideas:

  • It could be part of my hormone levels fluctuating. All of us, female and male, have different levels of hormones regulating all sorts of processes in our body, including mood, hunger, sleepiness and energy levels. Females typically have a monthly cycle which is regulated by female sex hormones and, for some girls and women, this noticeably involves mood swings that follow a similar pattern each month. Recognising that this is what is happening can be helpful. (Your doctor or pharmacist might recommend diet changes or supplements. And if your symptoms are particularly distressing, certainly ask for medical advice.)
  • It could be a subconscious reaction to something that happened earlier in the day or week which I haven’t properly reacted to. Maybe someone said something undermining or I had a negative thought. Maybe I heard a sad story in the news.
  • I could be healthily processing something I’m worried about.
  • I could be fighting off a virus or other infection. Or I could recently have been unwell and my body isn’t fully back to strength yet.
  • There could be something I’m anxious or sad about that I haven’t actively noticed.
  • It’s just one of those things and I’ll never know the reason.
  • My well of well-being has run too low – I’ll come to that in a minute.

The main thing is to tell myself: This is how I feel just now but I’ll soon feel different. Now is a good time to do something fun, exciting, relaxing or positive in some way. (Again, see the list below!)

Basically, it’s OK to feel rubbish sometimes. Humans experience all sorts of emotions and we react to all sorts of things. We have to accept that we can’t feel happy, relaxed, positive and excited all the time. Frankly, that would be either boring or exhausting!

(I’ll come to when it’s NOT OK below.)

What can I do about it?

Two things. Learn and practise a breathing exercise. And refill your well of well-being.

The breathing exercise

This is explained here:

Or you can internet search “belly-breathing” on Youtube.

A couple of extra tips:

Don’t take three deep breaths; instead, GIVE three deep breaths – it’s the breathing OUT, not the breathing in, that’s important. Try it now: blow out sharply, relaxing and lowering your shoulders, torso and belly each time. (Obviously you have to breathe in between each one but your focus is on the pushing out.)

Picture your happy – when you’ve got your breathing under control, think yourself to wherever you feel happy and relaxed. For me it’s my vegetable garden, where I can see trees and hills. I realise that makes me lucky but you can find your happy place, too. It can be purely in your imagination if you want.

Refill the well of well-being

When things are going well in your life, your well of well-being is probably quite full. And some people’s well fills more easily than others. But each bad thing reduces the level of your well-being. Whether it’s stresses and pressures, sad and difficult things happening, minor illnesses such as colds, people criticising or undermining you, or worrying thoughts in your mind, each of these drags you down a little, reducing your well-being physically and mentally.

The more your well-being is reduced, the more you need to do to build the level back. You can’t go on forever reducing it or eventually you’ll become ill. Or at least exhausted.

Fortunately there are LOTS of ways to refill your well-being well! Here are some ideas. Which of them have you done in the last 24 hours?

  • Go for a walk – on your own or with someone else
  • Go to a beautiful place and just look at it
  • Lie on the grass in the sun, or on a beach, or anywhere comfortable
  • Have a bath
  • Read for pleasure
  • Meditate or do mindfulness
  • Meet a friend for ice-cream, coffee, shopping or a chat
  • Visit a tourist attraction
  • Listen to music
  • Go to an art gallery
  • Draw or colour
  • Do something with crafts
  • Cook or bake
  • Grow something from seed
  • Dance to your favourite music in your room
  • Do a task you’ve been putting off
  • Learn the meaning or spellings of three new words
  • Do a yoga workout
  • Spend time on a hobby – everyone should have a hobby! Mine’s gardening.
  • Drink some chilled water, maybe with a slice of orange and a couple of mint leaves
  • Write a thank you note to someone
  • Say something nice to someone
  • Do something helpful for someone
  • Smile – the act of smiling raises your mood on its own
  • Laugh – laughter does even more; find a YouTube video to make you laugh

These things work – but you do have to DO THEM! Not just once, but often.

When is it not OK?

It’s OK – even normal – to feel anxious or low sometimes. But if this is happening too often or too strongly, so that it’s coming to dominate your life and spoil your ability to do your work well, interact positively with friends and family, and look ahead with hope and ambition, then that’s not OK. Then you should speak to a trusted adult and arrange to discuss all this with a medical professional – usually your family GP. The general rule is that if significant anxiety or low mood have dominated your feelings most of the time for the last two weeks, this is a sign that you might need some professional help.

Don’t suffer in silence. If you’re not sure whether what you’re going through is OK or not OK, talk to a trusted adult.

What about panic attacks? I’m going to talk about them on Thursday. A panic attack is a horrible experience. You think you’re going to die. (You won’t and the panic attack will stop very soon, even if you do nothing – I’ll explain why on Thursday). If you’ve had one before you are probably scared it will happen again so you need some tools to deal with the attack.

More for you

Here’s my handout of tips for how to help young people with anxiety: AnxietyTips

Happy Self Guide to Anxiety – something I wrote on anxiety for Happy Self, the journalling company.

Coming later this year: No Worries, my own book to nail anxiety and show young people all the ways they can beat it. Anxiety is a completely natural human (and other animal) response. There’s nothing wrong with it unless it becomes dominant in our lives – and we can learn to stop that happening.

Two organisations doing great work: Place 2 Be and Young Minds

Later this month, the new edition of Blame My Brain comes out. It aims to give a deep understanding of how teenage brain changes affect feelings and behaviour – life! Have you entered the giveaway? You could win a signed copy!



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