This article covers
- What is anxiety?
- Causes of anxiety
- The symptoms of anxiety
- Treating anxiety
- List of useful resources
- How Mindsum can help?
What is anxiety?
Children and young people feel worried and fearful about different things sometimes, which is a normal part of growing up. This is often the case when they are faced with challenging tasks, unfamiliar people and unfamiliar situations.
Anxiety becomes a problem when these worries and fears are so severe and persistent that they start to interfere with normal activities in the child’s everyday life.
For example, on the first day at a new school, all children feel nervous. But some may feel so nervous that they fail to turn up.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems experienced by young people. But lots of people still suffer in silence. It is important to recognise anxiety and find the right support, so that more serious mental health problems can be prevented.
Causes of anxiety
The cause of anxiety in children and young people is likely due to a combination of different factors. Here are some factors to consider:
- History of anxiety in the family
- Being around anxious people
- Having a stressful experience around a particular situation or object (e.g. social situation, animal, heights, planes)
- Trauma (e.g. neglect, sexual abuse, accidents, deaths)
- Big life changes (e.g. moving to a new house, death of loved one, starting a new school)
- Situations at home or school (e.g. parents fighting, abuse, bullying, exams)
It is very common for children and young people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism spectrum disorder to suffer from anxiety.
The symptoms of anxiety
When a person is having anxiety, their brain is signalling to them that they should run away because there is a danger. For this reason, a person can experience symptoms of anxiety in both their mind and body.
Anxiety in the mind may cause a person to feel:
- Unable to concentrate
Anxiety in the body may cause a person to feel:
- ‘Butterflies’ in the stomach
- A racing heart
- Shortness of breath
There are different types of anxiety disorders. Some of the most common types of anxiety disorders experienced by children and young people are listed below.
A normal experience for infants up to the age of 3 years. It is a problem when the child does not grow out of it. The symptoms can include:
- Being overly clingy
- Intense worry for the safety of parents
- Refusal to be alone without parents
- Intense distress or panic at times of separation from parents
- Persistent worry about sudden separation from parents
- Refusal to sleep alone without parents
A persistent worry about different situations without a clear cause. The symptoms can include:
- Spends most days worrying
- Finds it difficult to stop worrying
- The constant need for reassurance
- Muscle tension
- Overworking to perfection
- Avoiding task due to fear of not performing well
An excessive fear directed towards an object or situation e.g. dogs, needles, darkness. The symptoms can include:
- Extreme fear about a specific thing
- Crying, freezing, clinging or tantrums when close to feared object or situation
- Avoids that thing on purpose
- Extreme distress if avoidance is not possible
- Avoidance of thing interrupts normal activities
When there is an intense fear about being in social situations or big crowds. The symptoms can include:
- Fears being around and talking to people
- Avoidance of social situations
- Feelings of intense stress during social situations
- Constant worries about being embarrassed, rejected or laughed at by others
- Replaying scenarios or conversations and over-analysing them
- Hiding, crying or freezing when faced with social situations
Other types of anxiety disorders in young people include panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Jess just moved to a new school recently. Even though the other girls have been very welcoming to her, Jess is afraid that she might come across as a looser to them. During break time, she feels worried and starts to sweat uncontrollably. She is terrified of saying the wrong thing and making herself look foolish. At home, Jess can’t help it but to replay events that happened at school to try and guess what others think of her. This got so bad that Jess thinks that it might be better for her to avoid going to break time altogether. Her parents are becoming concerned because they notice that Jess is just not herself when they pick her up from school. They believe that it might be helpful to speak to a mental health expert.”
Problems with anxiety can be managed to prevent long term problems such as loss of friends, poor academic performance and self-esteem. There are different ways to do this:
- Talking with loved ones about the anxiety
- Engaging with self-help books available online
- Doing breathing exercises when anxious
- Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with exercise, healthy food and a good bedtime routine
- Having therapy along with these steps
Talk therapy provided by a mental health expert will help the child or young person to talk about and take control over their anxiety. This can be done through the following therapies:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – a talk therapy that focuses on helping the child or young person to understand how thoughts, feelings and behaviours relate to each other. The therapist will also teach the child or young person specific skills, such as problem-solving skills, social skills and breathing techniques. This will help the child to take control over their anxiety.
- Exposure therapy- a therapy that focuses more on behaviours that play a part in allowing the anxiety to continue. It is specialised for specific anxiety types, such as phobias. The therapist will provide a safe environment, where the child or young person can face their fears long enough to learn that nothing bad will actually happen.
Medication for anxiety can be prescribed by a doctor or psychiatrist. It is usually given if the anxiety is severe and other methods such as therapy and self-help has not worked. Many people benefit from having both medication and therapy together when dealing with anxiety. But it is a good idea to try self-help methods and therapy first.
You can get more information about anxiety on the NHS website. Click here to access the link.
Anna Freud NCCF
This national centre for children and families provides helpful resources including podcasts for parents and carers on anxiety and other disorders in children. Click here to access these podcasts.
There are helpful books and advice on anxiety for children available online. Click here to access the link.