Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions. That’s partly because everyone experiences stress and worry. There are many different types of anxiety disorders, with different symptoms. But they all share one common trait — prolonged, intense anxiety that is out of proportion to the present situation and affects a person’s daily life and happiness.
Symptoms of an anxiety disorder can come on suddenly or can build gradually and linger. Sometimes worry creates a sense of doom and foreboding that seems to come out of nowhere. Kids with anxiety problems may not even know what’s causing the emotions, worries, and sensations they have.
Disorders that kids can get include:
With this common anxiety disorder, children worry excessively about many things, such as school, the health or safety of family members, or the future in general. They may always think of the worst that could happen. Along with the worry and dread, kids may have physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension, or tiredness. Their worries might cause them to miss school or avoid social activities. With generalized anxiety, worries can feel like a burden, making life feel overwhelming or out of control.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). For a person with OCD, anxiety takes the form of obsessions (excessively preoccupying thoughts) and compulsions (repetitive actions to try to relieve anxiety).
These are intense fears of specific things or situations that are not inherently dangerous, such as heights, dogs, or flying in an airplane. Phobias usually cause people to avoid the things they fear.
Social phobia (social anxiety).
This anxiety is triggered by social situations or speaking in front of others. A less common form called selective mutism causes some kids and teens to be too fearful to talk at all in certain situations.
These episodes of anxiety can occur for no apparent reason. During a panic attack, a child typically has sudden and intense physical symptoms that can include a pounding heart, shortness of breath, dizziness, numbness, or tingling feelings.
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This type of anxiety disorder results from a traumatic past experience. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, fear, and avoidance of the traumatic event that caused the anxiety.
Experts don’t know exactly what causes anxiety disorders. Several things seem to play a role, including genetics, brain biochemistry, an overactive fight/flight response, stressful life circumstances, and learned behavior.
A child with a family member who has an anxiety disorder has a greater chance of developing one, too. This may be related to genes that can affect brain chemistry and the regulation of chemicals called neurotransmitters. But not everyone with a family member who has an anxiety disorder will develop problems with anxiety.
Things that happen in a child’s life can set the stage for anxiety disorders in childhood or later in life. Loss (like the death of a loved one or parents’ divorce) and major life transitions (like moving to a new town) are common triggers. Kids with a history of abuse are also more vulnerable to anxiety.
Growing up in a family where others are fearful or anxious also can “teach” a child to view the world as a dangerous place. Likewise, a child who grows up in an environment that is actually dangerous (if there is violence in the child’s family) may learn to be fearful or expect the worst.
Signs & Symptoms
Although all kids experience anxiety in certain situations, most (even those who live through traumatic events) don’t develop anxiety disorders. Those who do, however, will seem anxious and have one or more of the following signs:
- excessive worry most days of the week, for weeks on end
- trouble sleeping at night or sleepiness during the day
- restlessness or fatigue during waking hours
- trouble concentrating
These problems can affect a child’s day-to-day functioning, especially when it comes to concentrating in school, sleeping, and eating.
And it’s common for kids to avoid talking about how they feel, because they’re worried that others (especially their parents) might not understand. They may fear being judged or considered weak, scared, or “babyish.” And although girls are more likely to express their anxiety, boys experience these feelings, too, and sometimes find it hard to talk about. This leads many kids to feel alone or misunderstood.
The good news is that doctors and therapists today understand anxiety disorders better than ever before and, with treatment, can help kids feel better.
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