Is Your Student Anxious About School? The Difference Between Normal Worry vs. Anxiety




Written by the Joon Care team. 

Everyone worries and it can even be useful!  Healthy worrying about potential obstacles and concerns in life can lead to useful strategies for problem-solving. But there are significant differences between helpful worrying and unhelpful anxiety. 

In this article, we’ll explain how to tell the difference between “normal” worrying and anxiety, the signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders, and what to do if you think your teen is struggling with anxiety. 

Normal Worry vs. Anxiety: How to Tell the Difference 

Feeling worry and stress about school is normal. Most students experience it. In fact, it’s not uncommon for us to be asked why school is so stressful for many students. 

When your student is experiencing helpful worrying, that often leads them to think through their specific and concrete problem. After they come up with a solution or the problem is resolved, the worry fades away. 

However, anxiety leads a student to think about potential problems that may or may not actually happen. They might come up with potential solutions, but the anxiety persists. Additionally, anxiety is characterized by catastrophizing or always thinking about the worst-case scenarios. Where helpful worrying is temporary and focused, unhelpful anxiety lasts longer and is more generalized. 

Take this common teenage concern of getting a good grade on a test. A teen who is engaging in helpful worrying will think of problem-solving solutions like setting aside plenty of time to study, asking the teacher any lingering questions, or taking a practice test. When the test is over, the worry stops. 

A student who is struggling with unhelpful anxiety, however, might also come up with some problem-solving solutions to help study for the test or they may avoid studying or put off studying until the last minute. 

Instead of just thinking about this test and ways to get a good grade on it, unhelpful anxiety may lead to the student thinking about future tests in this class, tests in other classes, times in the past they haven’t gotten good grades,  the consequences of getting a bad grade, and conclude that they are not good at tests or school in general. When the test is over, the anxiety persists. 

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety in students is very common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 30% of all teens meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder.

Common symptoms of anxiety:

  • Having difficulty concentrating or focusing on schoolwork, chores, or other activities
  • Frequently feeling nervous or stressed
  • Increased irritability with friends, family members, and teachers
  • Avoiding schoolwork, extracurricular activities, or spending time with friends
  • Feeling “on edge”, fidgety, jumpy, or needing to move often
  • Change in eating habits, either eating more than usual or less than usual over several weeks
  • Difficulty sleeping and lower energy levels
  • Physical symptoms such as a racing heart, shallow or fast-paced breathing, nausea or other GI symptoms, dizziness, shaking or trembling, and more

As kids grow up, the focus of anxiety changes. Anxiety in children is often the fear of something external, bugs, monsters under the bed, or losing a parent, to name a few. 

In adolescence, anxiety often becomes more internalized, with fears of how parents, peers, teachers, and coaches are judging or assessing them. Additionally, teens may also experience increased judgment and anxiety towards themselves.

Types of Teenage Anxiety Disorders

Generalized anxiety disorder

Characterized by anxiety about a number of different things. This anxiety is persistent and causes significant disruptions in a teen’s day-to-day functioning. 

Panic attacks

Characterized by physical symptoms when experiencing anxiety, including symptoms like difficulty breathing, a racing heart, nausea, shaking, dizziness, and more. Panic attacks may occur in response to a specific trigger or might be completely random. 

Social anxiety disorder

Characterized by difficulty participating in social interactions due to intense fear of embarrassing oneself or being harshly judged by others.

Specific phobias

Characterized by an intense fear of a specific situation or thing. Common specific phobias include fear of spiders or other bugs, heights, or getting blood drawn.

Causes and Risk Factors for Anxiety Disorders

While there is not a single, direct cause of anxiety disorders, if your teen has multiple risk factors, it can make it more likely they develop an anxiety disorder. Common risk factors include:

  • Experiencing a traumatic event or child abuse
  • A family history of anxiety
  • Having a chronic illness or other medical or mental health condition
  • Substance use

It’s important to note that having a risk factor does not mean your teen will develop an anxiety disorder. 

Additionally, teens experience unique stressors that may also contribute to the development of anxiety disorder. These stressors include:

  • The influence of social media on mental health
  • An increase in demands in high school: grades, extracurricular activities, college prep
  • Other changes in the school environment, including lockdown drills and an increase in school shootings

What’s the Difference Between Anxiety vs. Depression?

While anxiety and depression can occur together and have some overlapping symptoms, there are distinct differences between the disorders. The critical difference is the overall mood your teen experiences. Anxiety leads to feelings of nervousness and stress, while depression leads to feelings of sadness and hopelessness. 

Symptoms of Anxiety Checklist
Here is a checklist with questions you can ask your teen to help determine if they are experiencing anxiety:

  • Have you noticed an increase in nervousness or worrying over the past few weeks?
  • Do you feel like you’ve felt more irritable or easily annoyed lately?
  • Do you have difficulty controlling or stopping your worrying?
  • Are you worrying about multiple things?
  • Is it hard for you to relax?
  • Do you feel more fidgety or restless than usual?
  • Have you noticed an increased sense of dread or fear that something bad might happen?

If your teen answers “yes” to any of these questions, consider getting an evaluation from a licensed mental health provider.

How to Talk About Anxiety with Your Teen

While some teens know when they are anxious, other teens may not even realize they are experiencing anxiety. One of the best ways to help your teen is to look out for symptoms of anxiety. Talk with your teen about any upcoming stressors and help them problem-solve.  That can help to reduce their anxiety. 

Are your expectations for your teen realistic and achievable? High expectations can help push teens to succeed and can also lead to increased anxiety if the demand on them is too high. If you notice your teen is experiencing anxiety symptoms, talk to them about the treatment options available to them.

Diagnosing Anxiety Disorders

The best way to know for sure if your student is struggling with an anxiety disorder is to get a professional evaluation. An assessment from a primary care provider, psychologist, or other licensed mental health provider can help provide clarity on your teen’s symptoms and provide guidance on the best treatment options.

If you think that any of the anxiety disorder symptoms apply to your teen, know that you are not alone, and there is help available for your teen and your family! 

The fastest way to get relief for your teen is to connect to a licensed professional who specializes in evidence-based care, like the clinicians at Joon. Joon accepts insurance, or Appily students get a discount on live one-to-one teletherapy sessions with Joon.

To learn more about Joon, click the button below. As an Appily partner, Joon offers families a $150 discount when starting therapy.

Joon Care offers personalized, evidence-based online therapy to 13-24 year olds, integrating the benefits of one-on-one therapy sessions with a mobile app-based experience, along with support and resources for parents and guardians. Clients get convenient, scheduled, one-on-one therapy with qualified, diverse professionals along with interactive tools to support skill building and individual well-being. Evidence shows that the results are as good as or better than in-person therapy in reducing clinical and severe anxiety and depression.