What is anxiety & the effects on mental health

Anxiety is something that we can all experience from time to time. Much like fear – it is an uncomfortable feeling that we have when we are faced with difficult situations. Sometimes those situations are real, like a sports match or an exam. Sometimes we create those situations in our mind, like worrying about things that ‘could’ happen in future.

The experience of anxiety is our body’s way of preparing us to manage those difficult situations.  Anxiety can actually help us perform better by helping us feel alert and motivated. But sometimes anxiety can get so full on that it gets in the way of daily life – this is when anxiety becomes a problem.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

Physical symptoms of anxiety can include:

While everyone experiences anxiety differently, there are some common signs and symptoms of anxiety:

  • a racing heart

  • faster breathing

  • feeling tense or having aches (especially neck, shoulders and back)

  • sweating or feeling dizzy

  • shaking

  • ‘butterflies’ or feeling sick in the stomach.


Other signs include:

  • worrying about things a lot of the time

  • being unable to control the worries

  • being unable to relax

  • avoiding places or people, like school or parties

  • spending less time with friends and family

  • having trouble concentrating and paying attention

  • feeling annoyed, irritated or restless

  • difficulty getting to sleep at night and waking lots during the night. 


What are panic attacks?

Panic attacks can occur as part of an anxiety disorder but not everyone with anxiety problems will experience them.

During a panic attack, a person may suddenly overcome by strong fear and physical symptoms of anxiety, like a pounding heart, sweating, difficulty breathing, shaking, feeling dizzy or feeling sick. Panic attacks are usually short (about 10 minutes) and often feel overwhelming. Someone experiencing a panic attack might feel like they’re having a heart attack or an asthma attack; they might feel like they’re losing control.


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Common anxiety disorders

Anxiety symptoms can come and go – but for some people, they stick around for a long time and end up having a big impact on their school work, social life, family relationships and overall daily life. These are signs of an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health problems experienced by young people. Different situations or objects are associated with different types of anxiety disorders, but they can all be treated. Some common anxiety disorders are:

Generalised anxiety: Excessive worry about a variety of things, such as work or school performance. Someone experiencing generalised anxiety disorder may feel that their worries are out of control, feel tense and nervous most of the time, have trouble sleeping or find it hard to concentrate.

Social anxiety: Intense anxiety in social situations due to fear of embarrassment or judgment by others. This often leads a person to avoid social situations, such as public speaking, going to parties, or meeting new people.

Separation anxiety: Intense anxiety about being away from loved ones, such as parents or siblings, or excessive worry about them being hurt.

Agoraphobia: Intense anxiety about using public transport, being in open spaces, being in enclosed spaces, being in a crowd or being alone outside of home.

Panic disorder: This is when a person has lots of panic attacks and experiences ongoing fears about having another panic attack. See more information about panic attacks below.

Specific phobias: Intense fear of a particular situation or object (like small spaces or spiders) that leads a person to avoid the situation or object. 

Related problems

Many young people experiencing an anxiety disorder may also experience symptoms of depression. Some young people may also drink alcohol or use drugs to help them feel better or more confident. But relying on alcohol or drugs can make things much worse in the long run and cause long-term physical and mental health problems. 

What can I do to overcome anxiety?

While some amount of anxiety is a natural part of life, there are lots of things you can do to manage your anxiety so that it doesn’t need to get in the way of your daily life. The word ‘SUSTAIN’ might help you to remember them:

  • Self-care: Our overall mental health and wellbeing is influenced by how well we look after our minds and bodies. Managing anxiety starts with good self-care. Eating well and getting good sleep are important starting points. You can find some support for getting good sleep here.

  • Up your activity and exercise: Being active can have a huge impact on your anxiety levels. In fact, research suggests that regular exercise can be one of the best things we can do to reduce our daily anxiety levels. So try to get your heart rate up for 30 minutes at least three times a week.

    • Speak up: It’s a good idea to talk to someone that you trust about how you are feeling. You might choose to talk with your family or friends, a teacher or coach, or your mob or Elders. They can help you to work out what is going on and what support you might need. Talking to others can also help you to feel understood and can also help you to see things from a different point of view.

    • Thinking patterns: Our thoughts affect our feelings and our behaviours. Being aware of what thoughts are influencing your anxiety is an important step towards reducing anxiety. There are heaps of apps that can help you keep an eye on the thoughts that are more common when you’re anxious. Some positive self-talk (like ‘I can do this’) can also be helpful.

    • Avoidance: It’s normal to want to avoid situations that make you feel anxious. It might work in the short-term, but over time it can make the anxiety worse, because you don’t get the opportunity to learn that the thing you fear may not happen or be as bad as you think. Learn some skills to cope with anxiety (like helpful self-talk and relaxation), then gradually face the things you fear and put your skills into action! As you realise you can manage anxious situations, you’ll become more confident and motivated to keep it up.   

    • Increase your relaxation: Find ways that help you to feel more relaxed and less tense. Breathing exercises are simple but really effective relaxation strategies. Try counting your breaths in and out while noticing the feelings in your body. Mindfulness activities, listening to music and reconnecting with people or country can also be relaxing.

    • Notice your use of alcohol or drugs: Try to avoid, or at least limit, your use of alcohol and other drugs.  While these things might help you to feel good in the short term, they can make you feel much worse in the longer term.


Mental health professionals

There are mental health professionals at headspace centres and eheadspace  (online and phone support) who can help. If you are at school or uni, you may also be able to access a counselling or student wellbeing service.

An important part of professional support is often talking (psychological) therapy. Psychological therapy might involve helping you to understand your experiences of anxiety and to learn anxiety management skills, practise relaxation techniques and gain confidence to cope in stressful situations. Some medications can also help with anxiety disorders.

Online programs and apps

Some young people prefer to access support online or on the phone before seeing a professional face-to-face counsellor. A few online (and free!) programs and apps that can help are listed here:

The Brave Program

A free online program for the prevention and treatment of anxiety in Australian children and young people aged 8–17 and their parents.

Indigenous Wellbeing Course

A course for Indigenous Australians to help them manage symptoms of stress, anxiety, worry and low mood.

Mood Mechanic Course

An online program for stress, worry, anxiety and depression in people aged 18–25.


Self-help program for depression, grief and loss, anxiety and relationship breakdown.

The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.

Last reviewed 26 June 2017


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