Anxiety disorders Symptoms & Causes

What causes anxiety disorders?

All of us are born with the natural “fight or flight” response that helped our ancestors escape predators and other threats. When we are afraid or stressed, the part of our brain in control of the fight or flight response will cause the nervous, fearful feeling we call anxiety.

While everyone experiences anxiety at times, people with anxiety disorders feel worry that is difficult to control and interferes with their functioning. There are biological, family, and environmental factors that may contribute to a child having an anxiety disorder.

Biological factors

The brain has special chemicals, called neurotransmitters, that send messages back and forth to control the way a person feels. Serotonin and dopamine are two important neurotransmitters that, when “out of whack,” can cause feelings of anxiety.

Family factors

Just as a child can inherit a parent’s brown hair, green eyes, and nearsightedness, a child can also inherit that parent’s anxiety. In addition, anxiety may be learned from family members and others who are noticeably stressed or anxious around a child. For example, a child whose parent is a perfectionist may become a perfectionist too. Parents can also contribute to their child’s anxiety without realizing it by the way they respond to their child. For example, allowing a child to miss school when they are anxious about going, likely causes the child to feel more anxious the next school day.

Environmental factors

A traumatic experience (such as a divorce, illness, or death in the family) may also trigger the onset of an anxiety disorder.

Who is affected by anxiety disorders?

Anyone can be affected by an anxiety disorder when worries become so intense that they interfere with daily functioning and cause distress.

What are the symptoms of anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders can cause both and physical and emotional symptoms.

Physical Symptoms Include:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Quick breathing or difficulty catching one’s breath
  • Muscle aches (especially stomach and headaches)
  • Shaking, dizziness, tingling
  • Sweating
  • Fatigue
Emotional symptoms include:
  • Ongoing worries about friends, school, or activities
  • Worrying about things before they happen
  • A need for everything to be “perfect”
  • Constant thoughts and fears about safety (of self or of others, such as parents and siblings)
  • Reluctance or refusal to go to school
  • "Clingy” behavior with parents
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Irritability
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Inability to relax

How common are anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem in childhood, with up to 1/10 children and adolescents having an anxiety disorder.

How can I tell if my child has an anxiety disorder, or if they are just anxious?

All kids experience anxiety. Certain fears and worries are typical for specific age groups. For example, young children are often afraid of loud noises, strangers, the dark, and imaginary figures. Most of these fears will disappear as the child gets older. However, if these fears or other worries get so big that they begin to interfere with a child’s daily functioning (they avoid activities, can’t relax or concentrate), they may have an anxiety disorder.

What is the difference between anxiety disorders in children and anxiety disorders in adults?

Unlike adults, children usually don’t realize how intense or abnormal their feelings of anxiety have become. It can be difficult for a child to know that something is “wrong.”

How can I prevent anxiety disorders?

Seeking help for your child at the first sign of excessive worrying will help to keep worries from growing so big that they are likely to develop into an anxiety disorder. Some other tips include:

  • Staying calm in front of your child, as h/she often looks to you for how to react in new and uncertain situations.
  • Avoiding a lot of reassurance and instead teaching your child how to problem solve and reassure him/herself.
  • Discouraging avoidance of feared situations/objects, as this may temporarily reduce distress, but will allow the anxiety to grow and make things more difficult for your child in the future.

What is the long-term outlook for a child with an anxiety disorder?

With proper treatment, the majority of children diagnosed with an anxiety disorder experience a reduction or elimination of symptoms within several months.