The Impact of Anxiety

October 31, 2016

Anxiety is a big, diverse topic that I will address over time in multiple posts. Here and now I want to introduce the subject in general, and provide some examples of how anxiety impacts our young people. We all have a measure of anxiety that has been wired into us by evolution which can be activated by some level of threat. It is easy to imagine that evolution favored prehistoric people who had some degree of anxiety by allowing them to maintain a high enough level of alert to avoid predators and other natural dangers. Given that in most of the industrialized world such immediate perils are not nearly so omnipresent, to a great extent higher levels of anxiety are now much more likely to present ourselves, and our children, with difficulties as opposed to advantages. I am often asked if anxiety is more common now in children than in the past. It certainly seems to be, as the 24 hour everything cycle that most of exist within makes it difficult to have time for rest and reflection, and serves to push those who would be anxious but able to compensate over the edge into a state of dysfunction.

An anxiety disorder is diagnosed when worries and fears are severe and persistent enough to create impaired function and/or reduced quality of life. Anxiety disorders are the most common form of behavioral illness in children and adolescents, with studies showing that in a given year in the United States over ten percent of the pediatric population meets diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders commonly make it difficult to do well in school or in peer interactions, and often precede or exist together with other mental and behavioral illness, including depression.

We all have known or interacted with young people, knowingly or not, whose behavior has been negatively altered by anxiety in a manner that was a problem either for them or those around them, often both. Generalized Anxiety Disorder in a young child can lead to a chronic state of feeling afraid and overwhelmed by simple, daily activities and stimuli, causing them to act difficult, oppositional and irritable. Their parents often live in dread of family, friends, teachers and casual contacts concluding that their child is ill-behaved due to a parenting deficiency instead of understanding that the behavior is the result of complex genetic and environmental forces, and that both parent and child wish it could be different.

School can be a painful experience for a teenager with Social Anxiety Disorder, who have outsized concerns over what others think of them even in the most trivial of ways, and have continual fear that they will do or say something that will cause them embarrassment. The developmental difficulties that young people typically encounter during adolescence are magnified many times over by social anxiety as they make their way through increasing autonomy, emerging sexuality, and looming life choices.

Given the increased vulnerability and risk anxiety disorders create, awareness by parents, doctors and educators of the existence, signs and symptoms of this type of illness in young people is essential. Continuing to increase this awareness will facilitate the diagnosis, treatment and accommodations that affected children and teenagers need in order to be their best selves.