Understanding anxiety in children
Imagine being in a constant state of heightened vigilance. You have this grating feeling that something is wrong, that you (or someone else) is seriously in danger. This may be physical danger, it might be a fear of what others think, a fear of making a fool of yourself. It may be a fear for your own health, or someone else’s. You have a constant and often painful feeling in your oesophagus - a tight chest, not just butterflies but bats in your stomach. Your brain may even feel as if it’s short circuited. This is what, for many people, it feels like having an anxiety disorder!
Now imagine that you’ve never even heard the term ‘anxiety disorder’ because you are too young to know what it means. As such, you struggle to articulate how you feel and have no chance of understanding why you feel like this. The chances are that you’re going to start to feel angry and maybe even depressed. It is possible that this is how a child experiencing anxiety may feel and the sad fact is that more and more children are being identified as having an anxiety disorder. According to Young Minds, one in six children will experience problems with anxiety at some point in their life.
A normal response
However, before you panic because your child is worried about something, remember that anxiety is a normal human emotion. We have all evolved to experience anxiety to a certain extent and this is because anxiety allows us to focus our attention and prepare us for action (Workman, 2012). In other words, anxiety can be likened to a natural alarm system.
Why are some people more anxious than others?
The degree to which we experience anxiety is determined by our genetic inheritance, temperament and life experiences and this is why levels of anxiety vary from one person to the next. All of us are unique and even when genetically individuals are the same as with identical twins, there will be some variation in terms of life experiences.
When is anxiety a problem?
Anxiety is only a problem when it begins to take over our lives and stops us from doing things. In children, anxiety is considered problematic when symptoms cause the young person (or others) a significant degree of distress and when symptoms have an adverse effect on social or educational functioning (Dogra et al, 2009).
There are a number of different types of anxiety disorder, some of which are situation-specific and some of which are general. Anxiety Disorders in children can include the following:
- separation anxiety
- selective mutism
- specific phobia
- social anxiety disorder
- school refusal
- generalised anxiety disorder
- attachment disorder
- panic disorder.
The three main features of anxiety in children are:
Feelings of fear, scared feelings, anger, misery, sadness and/or being afraid or worried.
The child worries that they or someone else close to them is at risk of death or illness. They have anxious thoughts that are sometimes obsessive and are focused on real or imagined events. These thoughts often relate to perceptions of impending disaster or doom.
Physical (or somatic) components
Stomachache, headache, shortness of breath, pins and needles, choking sensation, blurred vision, a repeated sense of the need to urinate or defecate, hot and cold flushes, fatigue and muscle tension.
What might help?
If you suspect your child is experiencing excessive anxiety, in the first instance you should see your GP. There are many types of therapy available to help children manage their anxiety. This may include brainworking recursive therapy, which many people find offers a rapid and extremely effective release of anxiety. There is also hypnotherapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, counselling and medication.
Children often respond extremely well to hypnotherapy, particularly as it requires them to engage their imagination and pretend world in a way that helps them to let go of worries, increase feelings of calmness and encourage positive self-talk. Furthermore, a good clinical hypnotherapist will be able to teach your child techniques, such as controlled breathing and triggers to help them calm down during moments of anxiety.
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About Sue Learoyd-Smith
Sue works as a clinical hypnotherapist at SFS Therapy. She specialises in working with stress, anxiety and depression and has also successfully helped clients (both young and old) with issues including weight loss, depression, panic attacks, fears/phobias, addiction, motivation and many other issues.