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Anxiety in Children

What Does Anxiety Disorder in Children Feel Like?

Tim was extremely concerned about his seven-year-old daughter's behavior. Rachel seemed to worry about everything, all of the time. She worried about being late to school. She worried about her grades and her performance in choir. She worried about her health and the health of her family members. She worried about natural disasters like earthquakes and storms. Tim realized that Rachel spent so much time worrying about things that she couldn't enjoy anything. She wasn't sleeping well at night and she often complained of muscle pain and headaches. Rachel and her dad decided to get help.

Today Rachel is much happier and less focused on negative things. She and her dad went to a child psychologist who diagnosed her with Anxiety disorder. The three of them were able to come up with a treatment plan to help Rachel feel better. Now she is able to live her life without worrying about every little detail.

How common is Anxiety Disorder?

The exact percentages of children with Anxiety Disorder are not yet known; however, researchers estimate that it can affect up to one in ten children. Anxiety Disorder and various other anxiety issues (panic attacks, social anxiety, phobias, etc.) are very common among all age groups.

It is important to know that many children who suffer from Anxiety Disorder may be reluctant to seek treatment. However, if left untreated, Anxiety Disorder can have a tremendous negative impact on a child's development.

What causes anxiety?

There is no one cause for anxiety; it is likely that many factors contribute to a person's chances of developing anxiety. Scientists have broken down the potential causes into three groups, genetics and early learning, brain biochemistry, and the fight or flight mechanism.

Genetics and Early Learning

Anxiety disorders tend to run in families, so if a person's mom, dad, or other close relative has anxiety, they have a higher chance of developing anxiety themselves. Growing up in a family where fear and anxiety are constantly shown to children by role models can �teach� them to be anxious as well. In addition, if a child grows up in an abusive home, he or she may learn to always expect the worse.

Research also shows a genetic predisposition for a chemical imbalance in people with anxiety. Since the structure of the brain and its processes are inherited, this is yet another reason why anxiety can run in families.

Brain Biochemistry

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the brain that regulate a person's thoughts and feelings. Sometimes there is a problem with the way the brain's messages are being sent due to a chemical imbalance. Two of the primary neurotransmitters that affect a person's feelings are serotonin and dopamine. When there is an imbalance of these chemicals, a person can feel depressed or anxious.

Fight or Flight Mechanism

When a person senses danger, the body prepares itself to either fight (defend itself) or flee (run away from the situation). The body's fight or flight mechanism causes the heart rate to increase, the eyes to dilate, and the body to prepare itself for a dangerous situation. These responses allow a person to protect him/herself. Even though these effects are intended to be a good thing, sometimes the body misunderstands a situation and believes that there is danger when in reality there is not (taking a test, losing a favorite toy, etc). There is a part of the brain called the amygdala that triggers the fight or flight response. This part of the brain is trained to remember the thing that triggered the fight or flight mechanism (taking a test or losing a favorite toy). This is the brain's attempt to protect the person from future danger by keeping track of all things that might cue danger. Even though this part of the brain is trying to protect a person, it can be the cause of much unnecessary anxiety. The brain has to be �re-trained� to not react in fight or flight to something that is not actually dangerous.

How can Anxiety Disorder affect my child's life?

Anxiety disorder can affect your child's ability to enjoy life. Constant worry or fear leaves a child feeling mentally and physically drained. The following list of physical and mental symptoms may affect your child.

Physical Symptoms of Child Anxiety
  • Sweaty palms
  • Trembling
  • Shaking hands and feet
  • Muscle aches and tension
  • Upset stomach
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Change in eating habits
Mental Symptoms of Child Anxiety
  • Persistent worry (more than six months)
  • Irrational fears
  • Irritability
  • Lack of social activity
  • Fits of crying

Because children may be unable to articulate their feelings, it is the responsibility of the caretakers to determine the extent of the problem and the necessity for treatment.