Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – few spaces left and I’m not doing it again!

Questions about anxiety #10: Breaking down anxiety about anxiety

I’m answering a complex question on anxiety from a reader who works in a school, as many of you do.

Karen said:

“A lot of the young people in my school are anxious about things that, before, would not have been an issue such as refusing to go to class because the person they sit beside isn’t in or it’s a cover teacher. I tell them their anxiety is their alarm system telling them something is different or worrying but that no harm will come to them, that anxiety is a feeling like any other unless it stops them taking part in usual activities. Would you agree with this? What would you advise them to do?”

Quite a few elements to that so I’m going to break it down.

  1. “A lot of the young people in my school are anxious about things that, before, would not have been an issue such as refusing to go to class because the person they sit beside isn’t in or it’s a cover teacher.”

I also referred to this when I talked about whether any current increased anxiety might be a result of Covid. Now, I don’t know whether, when Karen says “before”, she means “before Covid” or just that these anxieties are specific to that age group (and I don’t even know what that age group is). But I want to pick up on the two examples Karen gives – the person they sit beside isn’t in or it’s a cover teacher.

Those two situations are, objectively, rather minor, aren’t they? As adults, we could feel that such small events barely warrant comment, let alone anxiety. “Deal with it,” we might be tempted to say – or, at least, to think. (Saying “deal with it” is not something I would ever recommend.)

But there are a few interesting things to note.

  • The situations undermine security. We feel secure when we sit next to someone familiar or we have a teacher we know. We have less to worry about than when we sit with or are taught by a stranger. And the difference might normally be minor and manageable but see next point…
  • When we are already anxious, we are more likely to feel more anxious about something we otherwise could have managed without noticing. Some days, I might be able to take a change of circumstance in my stride; other days, it might knock me off course. So, the children Karen describes are in that state of heightened anxiety and therefore more vulnerable to anxiety. It’s the worry spiral I talk about in No Worries and which I WILL write about on my blog, I promise!
  • Expressing these anxieties is safe and easy and likely to be paid attention to by the adult in the room – it’s a simple, quiet cry for help that is easier than expressing what they are really scared about, which could be illness, death, loss, war, loneliness. I am not saying that every child with a more “trivial” anxiety is hiding a larger one, but some of them are.
  • Sometimes, they feel anxious without quite knowing why. We all get that sometimes, I think. So, if you don’t know why you feel anxious it’s quite reasonable to explain it by virtue of something else more obvious, even if more trivial.

In short, what’s going on is that they are already in a state of heightened anxiety so are reacting anxiously to smaller things than otherwise. They crave security to manage their anxiety and so anything that reduces their security becomes a trigger for feeling worse. And their minor anxieties may sometimes also be a proxy for a deeper anxiety or for an anxiety with unknown cause.

2. “I tell them their anxiety is their alarm system telling them something is different or worrying but that no harm will come to them…”

100% right. This is the most important thing you can say. This anxiety is their brain doing what it’s supposed to do. And NO HARM WILL COME FROM IT.

3. “…that anxiety is a feeling like any other unless it stops them taking part in usual activities.”

Yes, exactly. Although anxiety itself isn’t strictly a feeling or emotion, it behaves like one. It’s just our brain’s response to something it perceives. Our job as the owner of our brain is then to direct it: is this something to be anxious about or is it now something to dismiss? Just as when we jump at the sound of a bang and moments later our brain tells us, “It was just a door banging – there’s no danger”; we then wait a few more moments for our heart rate to return to normal.

But anxiety is often less obvious and dramatic than a door banging and we then forget to take steps to dial down our reaction.

4. What would you advise them to do?

To take steps to dial down their reaction. Just as we tell ourselves that it was “just a door banging”, we must use our brilliant human minds to tell ourselves that:

  1. This is just my brain thinking there’s a problem.
  2. The problem isn’t as big as I first thought – I can deal with it.
  3. Here’s how I will deal with it if necessary.
  4. And here’s how I will calm down my responses – my breathing, my heart rate, my tense muscles, my spinning thoughts.

All those skills are teachable. And they are all in No Worries, which is published on Thursday! You’ll see a few of the Instant Actions scattered through this blog. I’ve made little images for ten of them – collect them all! But there are over 100 in No Worries and they all work. They even work for me and I’m a big worrier!

Thank you so much for your questions so far and for all the lovely comments you’ve been sending me about this book. As I always say, together we can do this!


No Worries – How to deal with teenage anxiety is published by Walker Books on Thursday August 3rd. Have you pre-ordered yours?

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.

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