Nicola Heath, Psychology Subject Advisor
This year, Mental Health Awareness Week runs from 15–21 May, and the theme is anxiety. In 2023, there are many factors that have heightened our anxiety, from climate change to the cost-of-living crisis, social pressures to exam success. In this blog, I’ll discuss anxiety, drawing upon my knowledge of psychology, my experiences of being a head of year and subject leader for PSHE as well as my personal interest in mental health.
Let’s start with the basics. What is anxiety? Young Minds defines anxiety as “a feeling of worry or fear which is manageable for most people, most of the time”. Feeling worried about situations is completely normal and being anxious is part of a wide range of human emotions that we all experience from time to time.
People of any age can experience anxiety; this could be in situations that are stressful or uncomfortable, such as before an important presentation, when meeting someone new for the first time or during stressful events like exams. We might worry about what will happen or what could go wrong.
It’s important to recognise how you are feeling day to day and when you are feeling anxious as it will help you to manage these emotions more effectively and avoid them taking over and impacting too much on your wellbeing. If you find yourself still feeling panicky when you are not in a stressful situation, you may need some extra support to help manage these feelings.
Although feeling anxious about stressful events can be a normal emotion, it is still good to be able to spot the signs in yourself and others. When you recognise how you are feeling and can give it a name, it can also make it easier to talk about it to others, if you want to. The NHS gives a clear list of signs to watch out for and there are some examples in the table below.
Experiencing some of the above, just before or during a stressful event is quite normal and should subside soon after you have left the situation. However, long term issues such as friendships or climate change are harder to escape and can mean you experience anxiety over a long period of time. Some of these signs might occur frequently and lead to more changes in behaviour.
If you notice this about yourself or someone you know, it may be a good idea to look for more experienced help from teachers, family members or organisations like the NHS or Young Minds.
As already discussed, anxiety at a low level is perfectly normal and we are hard-wired in our brains to experience these feelings as part of a fight or flight response. For early humans, this mechanism helped us to survive as it protected us from danger when we felt under threat. If our lives were in danger, a signal was sent to our brains which then sent adrenaline and cortisol through our body which made our hearts beat faster, pumping blood to our muscles. This meant for a short period we would be stronger, faster and more alert. We’d be ready to face the impending threat (fight) or run far away from it (flight).
This may have been beneficial for our ancestors, but in the modern world our stressors may be less dangerous, but our brains and bodies still react in the same way. This is what causes our anxiety response. Unfortunately, situations that cause us anxiety are often not ones we can fight or run away from. We still have the release of adrenaline and cortisol but we don’t use it up by fighting or running so instead we feel the physical effects. Our hearts beat faster, we feel hot and sweaty or we start to shake due to the hormones racing around our body. We should start to feel these symptoms fade away a few minutes after the event and we return to normal.
When you are experiencing anxiety, it can feel quite overwhelming. It may be difficult to concentrate or think about anything else. Try to remain calm and take deep breaths to relax your body and mind. The NHS has some great relaxation techniques that can help you in the moment.
It may be tempting to avoid the situation altogether, but this won’t help you in the long-term. Avoidance will reinforce that the situation is dangerous which in turn can increase the fight or flight response next time. Try to face your fear and prove to yourself that the situation is not one to fear. Afterwards you will feel much better and the next time you face the same situation you will be in a better position to do so.
A confident power pose (legs apart and arms behind the head) has been shown to lower stress hormones in difficult situations. In conclusion, if you act confidently your brain will follow and you will feel better able to control your anxiety.
Finally, it can help to reframe your thinking and outlook on the situations that are causing your anxiety. It can be difficult but over time you may start to see things from a different perspective, and this will allow you to embrace situations without fear. For example, using the 3A model below:
This model suggests that when you are feeling Anxious, you should reflect on whether you can Action something to make the situation better or if you should Accept the situation as it cannot be altered. We can often worry about things that are beyond our control, which may not be beneficial. It can be challenging to accept that you cannot change something, but this will ultimately help you to face and overcome the situation.
When you are experiencing anxiety, it can feel quite overwhelming. It may be difficult to concentrate or think about anything else. Try to remain calm and take deep breaths to relax your body and mind. The NHS have some great relaxation techniques that can help you in the moment.
If you are interested in the topic and want to find out more about anxiety and ways to manage feelings, there are useful resources on the following sites:
If you have tried to manage your anxiety but still feel it is persistent and leaves you spending most of your time worrying about something, you should speak to someone you trust. This could be a teacher, co-worker or family member. You could get professional support via your GP or a registered mental health charity such as Young Minds or Mind.
In this blog I have summarised what anxiety is, the signs to watch out for, why it occurs and what we can do to manage it. Whatever your age, I hope you found this information and the associated links useful.
If you have a moment, please take a look at our dedicated Mental Health Awareness Week webpage where we’re sharing anxiety and wellbeing lesson plans, blogs and podcasts for teachers and students.
Please let us know how you are marking Mental Health Awareness Week yourself and in your setting.
Share your thoughts in the comments below. If you have any questions, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, call us on 01223 553998 or tweet us @OCR_Psychology. You can also sign up to subject updates to keep up-to-date with the latest news, updates and resources.
Nicola joined OCR in 2022 as the Subject Advisor for Psychology. Prior to joining OCR, she taught psychology for over 10 years and had various other responsibilities in that time including being Head of Year and Subject Leader for PSHE. Nicola has a personal interest in mental health and wellbeing and enjoys reading, baking and spending time outdoors to relax.