More Than “a Little Bit Nervous”: Understanding the Experiences of Young Women With Anxiety During Secondary School

Thumbnail Image
Ross, Vita-Marie
Trait Anxiety , Anxiety Disorder , Anxiety , Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) , Secondary School , Adolescence
In recent years, there has been greater recognition of the importance of examining and improving the mental health of Canadian youth, in that approximately 50% of mental health problems surface during adolescence (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2013). One of the most debilitating mental health issues facing young people is anxiety (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2014; Rockhill et al., 2010). The ability of anxiety to impair the daily functioning of students at school is becoming an increasing concern for Canadian teachers (Canadian Teachers’ Federation, 2012). The purpose of this study was to understand the experiences of six young women between 18 and 22 years of age who self-reported having anxiety during secondary school. Semi-structured interviews were used to assist in further understanding these women’s experiences. An inductive approach was employed to analyze the data. Data analysis revealed four primary themes: (1) experience of anxiety, (2) triggers of anxiety, (3) effects of anxiety, and (4) coping with anxiety. All participants’ experience of anxiety included physiological and cognitive symptoms. For some of these young women, a lack of awareness of their anxiety and stigma were additionally encountered. Participants identified academic, teacher, social, family, and future triggers that caused them to feel anxious at school, as well as academic, social, and emotional effects of anxiety. The young women used talk strategies, academic coping strategies, personal coping strategies, pharmacotherapy, and avoidance to manage anxiety. Two secondary themes additionally emerged across these primary themes: (1) fear of the future and (2) perfectionism. Further to these young women’s experiences was a fear of uncertainty in things to come, as well as a need to control outcomes through perfectionism and high academic standards. Finally, while no participant approached their teachers for assistance in coping, these young women suggested teachers could help anxious students by using specific teaching strategies, by being approachable, and by talking about mental health at school. While there were many similarities across participants’ experiences, the phenomenon of having anxiety during secondary school is complex – unique to each individual, personal circumstances, and life events.
External DOI