Originally found on https://www.lohud.com/story/sponsor-story/newyork-presbyterian-hospital/2017/04/24/childhood-anxiety-disorders/100457210/

All children experience anxiety at some point or other. It’s often due to a specific event that quickly resolves itself. But if anxiety in a child recurs often and lasts for long periods of time, it can become an anxiety disorder, the most common type of psychiatric problem in children, and one that can interfere with academic, social, and family dynamics.

“Anxiety is a form of stress,” explains Dr. Matthew Specht, a psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Westchester Division in White Plains. “It can be experienced in many different ways — physically, emotionally, cognitively. Anxiety is a natural human reaction for people of all ages, and it serves as a type of  ‘alarm system’ that gets activated in the face of danger or threat. When the body and mind react, physical sensations such as rapid heartbeat, shaking and sweating occur. Called the fight–flight response, they are caused by a rush of adrenaline and other stress hormones that prepare the body to make a quick getaway or ‘flight’ from danger.”

Most children experience anxiety in the face of real threats. But when it results from perceived threats, and produces avoidance and escape-type behaviors that are inappropriate or dysfunctional, it may be a sign of a disorder. The onset of clinical anxiety is typically around six years old, usually at the same time children start school full-time, and symptoms can escalate around age 10.

There are many different types of anxiety disorders, each with different symptoms. What they have in common, however, is periods of prolonged, excess worry that is out of proportion to the triggering situation. Symptoms can develop suddenly or can build slowly over a period of time.

Anxiety disorders in children: common types

•    Generalized anxiety: A child can worry excessively about a wide range of things including school, the health or safety of family members, or the future in general.
•    Separation anxiety: This involves excessive distress when being separated from parents or guardians.
•    Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): The child engages in obsessions (intrusive unwanted thoughts, images or impulses) and/or compulsions (repetitive behaviors) to try and relieve the anxiety. Boys are more prone to this disorder than girls.
•    Phobias: Intense fears of specific things or situations that are not necessarily dangerous, such as heights, dogs, or traveling over bridges.
•    Social anxiety: This anxiety is triggered by social situations such as speaking in front of others. Early in a child’s life, social anxiety can sometimes be dismissed as introversion or shyness, but in reality this kind of anxiety can be detrimental to normal social development.
•    Panic attacks:  Sudden episodes that occur for no apparent reason. Intense physical symptoms might include a pounding heart, shortness of breath, dizziness, numbness, or tingling feelings.

The cause of anxiety disorders is not fully understood, but most agree that it is a complex combination of genetics, brain biology, stressful life circumstances, and learned behavior. A child with a family member who has an anxiety disorder has a greater risk of developing one, but it’s only a risk, not a guarantee. “Growing up with family members who are generally suspicious and fearful can affect a child’s perception – leading him or her to be fearful and to view people and situations with caution,” says Dr. Specht.

Written by NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital

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