Anxiety in adolescence

Adolescence is an exciting time, but it can also be a time of increased stress from school, family and social circles. Thousands of students are currently sitting their HSC exams across NSW. Our Psychological Medicine team has some advice on how to reduce exam stress and when to seek help for anxiety. 

How does anxiety affect people?

The cycle of anxiety is described below:

  • A situation triggers anxiety and the body responds. This can lead to worried thoughts and feelings of being overwhelmed, a racing heart and sweating.
  • Increased scanning of the environment for danger can cause physical symptoms to intensify.
  • There is a feeling of needing to escape or avoid the anxiety-producing situation and the fight or flight response is triggered. 
  • Escaping or avoiding the situation works and anxiety reduces, providing temporary relief.
  • This reinforces the fact that scanning and responding to anxiety by avoidance works and the cycle begins again.

It’s important to remember that anxiety isn’t caused and no one is to blame – it’s part of an interaction between individual genetics and the environment we grow up in. 

What is academic anxiety?

There are different types of anxiety – some anxiety is normal and even important to everyday life and studying. It helps provide motivation, ambition and drive. Unfortunately, high levels of anxiety interfere with the capacity to concentrate and focus which causes procrastination and avoidance. In turn, this reduces motivation and erodes confidence. 

It is important to remember that it isn’t the events which cause anxiety – it’s the way we interpret the event and react. Academic anxiety is related to being worried or fearful of perceptions that the student can’t do the exam, that they will fail or mess it up. 

The situation triggers the thought (or interpretation) which then leads to the emotion (fear) and the behaviour (avoidance). The process of much talking therapy is to break down situations into these components and check whether the situation warrants the interpretation/perception and if it’s accurate, then find more helpful ways to think and react to situations. 

HSC students can feel added pressure when they are told ‘this is the most stressful year of your life’ or ‘if you mess this up, you will mess up the rest of your life’. There are many paths in life. It is important to keep it in perspective – it’s an exam, it’s not a measure of people or worth. 

How can stress around exam time be reduced?

Lifestyle plays a major part. Elite athletes take care of their diet, sleep, rest and mental health – this should be the same for ‘elite’ students. Sleep is important as much of the ‘laying down’ of memory occurs during sleep. Study stress can be offset by having a balance and taking part in positive activities. 

Anxiety management techniques include:

  • Controlled breathing – which can be as simple as slowing down to a 10 second cycle. There are lots of apps that help with controlled breathing. 
  • Progressive muscle relaxation – focusing on tensing and relaxing each muscle in your body from top to toe. 
  • Visualisation – imagining yourself in a peaceful place or even imagining yourself after the exams.

When should a person seek professional help for anxiety?

The average onset of anxiety disorders is around 11 years old. It’s a disorder when:

  1. The anxiety lasts  
  2. It is not part of normal development for their life stage
  3. The young person is seriously distressed; and 
  4. It impacts on daily functioning in social, educational and relational areas and with concentration, focus, grades and attendance. With exams this might manifest as panic attacks or study avoidance. 

Anxiety can also be associated with other mental health issues – it’s worth watching out for low mood, ADHD (which can be confusing with difficulty focusing) or behavioural difficulties – becoming oppositional, and high risk behaviours including self-harm and drug and alcohol use.

Parenting styles with the best outcomes support teens with clear expectations and limits alongside support and care. 

Support is available. If you are worried about your child, please talk to a health professional.

If you are a young person who is experiencing anxiety, it can help to speak with your family, friends, teachers or other trusted adults.

Kids Helpline has a great fact sheet about exam stress, how to reduce stress, and tips for studying and exam day.

Read more about Psychology services at Sydney Children's Hospitals Network