Is My Anxiety Normal? How Can I Tell?

Everyone gets anxious. Children, teenagers, adults – no matter who you are or where you are in life, things can get under your skin and make you worry. Young kids worry about getting in trouble with their parents and how things are going with their friends at school. Adults worry about paying bills, work issues, saving money for retirement, and saving money for your college fund, for starters. As an adolescent, you have your own set of worries: social dynamics, romantic ups and downs, identity angst, the looming prospect of college and adulthood – and those barely scratch the surface.

It’s completely normal to stress out about all kinds of things when you’re a teenager:

Big test coming up?

Trying out for the soccer/cheerleading/football team?

Making a speech in front of the class?

Asking someone to the prom?

Championship game on Friday?

Applying to college?

Friends going through tough times?

Parents divorcing?

Freaking out about what others think about you?

If you don’t worry about one or two of those things at least a little bit, then you’re in the minority. In fact, you’re probably one of the only teenagers in the U.S. who doesn’t. Your worry may even be extreme and feel super-intense: knots in your stomach, sweaty palms, racing heart, tightness in your chest, shaky hands, or racing thoughts.

Nothing unusual about any of that.

Unless.

How Can I Tell?

There’s a general rule of thumb to follow about most mental health issues, especially anxiety and depression. The rule has two parts:

  1. If your anxiety lasts for more than a few days – up to two consecutive weeks – then you may be experiencing an anxiety disorder, rather than typical worry.
  2. If your anxiety disrupts your daily flow – meaning it keeps you from doing things you like to do, makes you perform poorly on tests, keeps you up at night, or disrupts your relationships with family or friends – then you may be experiencing an anxiety disorder, rather than typical worry.

Let’s back up for a moment and talk about why you worry about things in the first place. You may not have realized it yet, but worry and anxiety serve a positive function in the life of humans. They both originally developed to serve evolutionary needs, which means that, in some way or another, they helped our species survive. For instance, way back in human history, when we heard a rustle in the bushes or the low growl of a tiger on the prowl, anxiety would kick in and make us get to safety as quickly as possible. Or when we heard thunder in the distance, we’d worry about getting caught in a storm, so we’d find shelter.

In that way, anxiety makes total sense. It’s part of what kept us alive. If you want to learn more about this topic, click here for an easy-to-read article on the evolutionary purpose of anxiety. If you want to read a dense, science-y article about the evolution of anxiety, click here.

But now, back to the topic at hand: your anxiety, and the question of whether it’s normal or not. To figure that out, start with the two points above. If your anxiety lasts more than a few days, or if it disrupts your daily routine, then – and we don’t want this to add more anxiety to your life – there may be cause for concern. Fortunately, there are plenty of legitimate online resources to help you determine whether you should seek out help for your anxiety.

For basic facts, start with these:

  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Fact Sheet on Anxiety Disorders is a general primer on anxiety and anxiety disorders, including information on symptoms, types, causes, diagnosis, and treatment.
  • The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) Fact Sheet on Anxiety is similar to the NAMI information, but contains loads of links to additional resources and goes more in depth than the NAMI page.
  • The NAMI Statistics Summary has the latest statistic on the rates of anxiety disorders in teenagers in the U.S.

For scientist-approved self-screening tests for anxiety, start with these two:

Take these tests and examine your results. These are solid ways to figure out if you need to take the next step, but remember: the only people qualified to make a true diagnosis are mental health professionals.

The Next Step

If your results tell you that you have high levels of anxiety, the first thing you need to do is talk to your parents and ask them to arrange an appointment with a mental health professional, such as a licensed therapist or board-certified psychiatrist. To find a qualified professional in your area, use the Online Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Finder provided by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Last thing: don’t freak out!

Anxiety is common, and what’s more, it’s totally treatable. Millions of Americans – including teenagers – manage their anxiety every day. They lead happy, fulfilling, and successful lives. The one thing they all (or almost all) have in common: they got professional help.

And if you think your anxiety is more than just typical worry, you should get help, too.