All people feel anxiety. It is an important and ancient defensive feature of the human body. Without anxiety how else would we be alerted to imminent danger? Our “fight or flight” response to threat has helped to protect us and keep us safe as a species. When our minds become aware of a threat, our nervous system kicks into gear. Powerful hormones begin to race through our bodies and activate our heart and lungs for increased blood flow and oxygen. In addition, there is a slight increase in blood to our arms and legs in preparation for this fight or flight response. Confronting the things that threaten us, or running away from them, keeps us safe. Thus, although anxiety may at first appear to be an annoying, unpleasant and even painful experience, this is not part of its intended function. In fact, anxiety is critical to optimal performance. For instance, imagine a public speaker who has little or no adrenaline coursing through their bodies. Chances are their speech will not be very inspired.
A child’s experience of anxiety is very similar to that of their parents or other adults. All six of the anxiety disorders detailed for adults in the diagnostic manual of mental disorders also apply to children. The six disorders are panic disorder, specific phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety, social phobia and post traumatic stress disorder. What these disorders all have in common is an unusually intense fear that significantly interferes with a person’s daily functioning. This kind of anxiety is no longer improving performance or keeping you safe. It has gone beyond these positive effects and is now restricting you or your child’s life. While the underlying feelings of threat and physiological reactions are similar in kids and adults, what we see may be different. In fact, a seventh anxiety disorder is seen only in children and is called separation anxiety disorder.
What are you likely to see in your child and when should you become concerned? Look for the following signs: