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Gaining Insight into Youth with Anxiety

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety may appear as a behavioral problem stemming from excessive worry and irrational fears that need to be changed or fixed. However, as you will soon discover in this course, anxiety is a symptom of unmet emotional needs that are most effectively addressed through relationship.

Anxiety is excessive worry and apprehension on a regular basis for an extended period of time, about a number of activities. The experience of fear and anxiety is considered a normal part of life. However, when it begins to interfere with daily activities affecting one’s quality of life, fear and anxiety become problematic.

In Anxiety Disorders and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada: The Current State of Knowledge and Directions for Future Research, the authors define anxiety as an excessive fear of a threat that may or may not occur in the future, that may interfere with daily activities and decrease an individual’s quality of life often beginning in childhood through phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder. These problems can appear later in adults and adolescents as social anxiety and panic disorders (Bellamy & Hardy, 2015, p. 4).

Western mental health services have been critiqued as a form of colonization because they require the client to “embrace traditions such as mind-body dualism, individualism, and exclusion of spirituality as factors in mental wellness.” These limitations make traditional healing methods and theories essential for Aboriginal populations (Bellamy & Hardy, 2015, p.9).

Source: Anxiety Disorders and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada: The Current State of Knowledge and Directions for Future Research

When anxiety is characterized by chronic and excessive fear, worry, avoidance, and other behavioural and cognitive disturbances, it can impact a young person’s development, well-being, and overall quality of life. Most importantly, for youth in care, it can impact their receptivity to the care they need from those caring for them.

For Indigenous youth we must consider historical trauma and the impacts of colonization that include loss of connection to land and culture, as well as subsequent separations from biological parents, as major contributing factors to their overall well-being and sense of self.

Anxiety in Youth in Care

Youth who are living in care have experienced unbearable separation from their primary attachments. For Indigenous youth this includes disruption to connection with community, land, and traditional life ways. They experience anxiety as a natural response to too much separation.

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The Many Faces of Anxiety

Anxiety has many faces. Individual symptoms associated with anxiety can take endless shapes and forms that can be confusing and easily misinterpreted. However, anxiety generally includes one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Restlessness – the inability to rest, focus and relax.
  • Agitation – chronic edginess, aggression, and short-temperedness.
  • Unease – always feeling uneasy as if something is wrong, unsafe or out of place.
  • Fears – thoughts and feelings about bad things happening.
  • Obsessions – hyperfocus and the inability to stop thinking about or worrying about something.
  • Compulsions – inability to stop doing something, such as nail biting, checking locks, or counting.
  • Paranoia – feeling as if someone is out to get us.
  • Panic – overwhelming physical symptoms such as hyperventilation and heart palpitations.
  • Chronic worry – chronic thoughts about one thing or another that are distressing.
  • Imagining the worst – anticipating and picturing worst-case scenarios.

Young people experiencing these symptoms can feel like they have lost control of their bodies, thoughts, and emotions, which can be overwhelming for them. As an adult caring for a youth with anxiety, you have much to offer simply by focussing on strengthening the relationship between the two of you. For youth in care, many of these symptoms, if not all of them, are a result of unmet needs for a consistent, safe relationship with caring, responsible, warm adults. Anxiety can be explained as a symptom of unmet needs! Therefore, it is only through relationship that the unmet needs fuelling anxiety can finally be met.

Strengthening relationship is the safest and most powerful way to help anxious youth. Beginning to see anxiety as something that can be addressed relationally positions you to walk alongside youth in safe, indirect ways that are trauma informed and that take the youth’s cultural identity and background into consideration.

Relationship is the most important source of healing for a young person who has unmet needs and has experienced unwanted changes in their life that have compromised their ability to feel safe. Relational safety is a bottom line need for all youth that must be met regardless of where they come from or what their story is.

Interactive Activity


Which of the symptoms below is the youth in your care experiencing? 
On the form below, make your selections to help summarize what the symptoms look like in the youth you are caring for. Afterward, choose an email to send this information to. Feel free to complete this for as many youth as you would like:

‘It’s your path but you don’t have to walk it alone.’

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