Many of us have experienced the unsettling symptoms of anxiety — from daily nervousness to more significant anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders affect thousands of adults each year and can present with a range of symptoms. Children can also find themselves struggling with the weight of anxiety — it just looks a little different than in an adult.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
The core difference between feeling “anxious” and having “anxiety” is that while it’s common to experience short bursts of “butterflies”, anxiety can escalate to uncontrollable, excessive, or unrealistic worry. Many with anxiety may not be able to pinpoint what triggers sudden onsets, whereas feeling anxiousness is usually a short-lived direct response to an event.
There are many types of anxiety disorders, each with distinct symptoms and diagnosing criteria.
Common anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
- Panic Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
- Specific Phobias
- Separation Anxiety
- Selective Mutism
Anxiety disorders like separation anxiety and selective mutism are more common among children, while adults experience higher rates of panic disorder and GAD.
From a biological point of view, anxiety is a defence mechanism that keeps us on high alert in times of danger when a fight or flight may be necessary. Unfortunately, in our modern world, our brain’s ability to detect and differentiate life-threatening risks from daily stressors leaves many of us reeling from the long-term effects of anxiety disorders.
If you or a loved one is experiencing an anxiety disorder and are searching for support, we at Bhatia are here to help.
Anxiety in Children
In general, studies have found the lifetime prevalence for children with “any anxiety disorder” is 15-20%.
Statistics on Childhood Anxiety
Separation anxiety is the most common form of anxiety amongst children, affecting roughly 2.8-8%. Specific and social phobias follow in second and third place, with rates up to 10% and 7%, respectively. Panic disorder and agoraphobia appear to be least common in children, although rates are slightly higher for adolescents.
As with adults, anxiety disorders are more prevalent among female children than male children.
Signs of Anxiety in Children
Diagnosing childhood anxiety can be tricky. Adults can vocalize their experiences and differentiate between symptoms, reactions, and feelings that are normal versus extreme. Children don’t have the cognitive awareness or experience necessary to contextualize and explain their feelings. For this reason, anxiety symptoms in children may present through behaviour and actions rather than identifiable worry.
Anxiety in children can also be challenging to diagnose because it often overlaps with normal developmental stages that feature insecurity, fear, and anxiety (most parents are familiar with the terrible twos, for instance).
To identify anxiety in children, experts look for:
- Behavioural issues at school
- Inability to concentrate at school or home
- Poor academic performance
- Excess worry about multiple topics
- Avoids friends
- Difficulty sleeping
- Chronic exhaustion
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain or heart palpitations
- Abdominal pain or stomach aches (not related to digestive issues)
Children experiencing an anxiety disorder may demonstrate more rigid behaviour, leading to temper tantrums and overwhelm at often small changes in their routine or environment.
Causes of Anxiety in Children
Children often develop anxiety for many of the same reasons as adults.
- A family history of anxiety disorders
- Stressful or traumatic life events
- Medical or psychiatric issues
- Alcohol, medications, or illegal substance use
A family history of anxiety can be particularly impactful, both in terms of our genetic predisposition towards anxiety as well as environmental modelled behaviour.
University of Wisconsin researchers found that parents with anxiety were more likely to have children with anxiety. In looking at their brains, the study found the three areas most involved in the overactive brain circuit (the prefrontal cortex, limbic system, and midbrain circuit) can be passed down through the generations. While this doesn’t mean an instant diagnosis of anxiety, these genetic predispositions in brain structure may make the child more susceptible to developing an anxiety disorder.
Alongside genetic risk, exposure to adults or parents with chronic anxiety can increase the potential for childhood anxiety. Children are like sponges – they absorb everything around them. So when an adult models anxious behaviour and coping mechanisms, children may learn and adopt that behaviour. Family therapy, as well as individual therapy, can be very helpful in these instances.
Anxiety in Adults
Adults experience anxiety in many of the same ways that children do – the most considerable difference is in their ability to communicate what they’re feeling.
Statistics on Anxiety for Adults
According to the World Health Organization, roughly 264 million adults worldwide struggle with an anxiety disorder. The Statistics Canada’s 2002 Mental Health and Well-being Survey found that 1 in 10 Canadian adults met the criteria for diagnosing an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. They further found a lifetime prevalence of 8.1% for social anxiety, 3.7% for panic disorder, and 1.5% for agoraphobia.
Signs of Anxiety in Adults
The symptoms of anxiety experienced by adults vary by disorder type, but generally include:
- Excessive worry or anxiety that stretches for days at a time
- An inability to control or manage feelings of apprehension and anxiety
- Issues falling and staying asleep
- Extreme fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling “on edge” and restless
- Muscle tension
Causes of Anxiety in Adults
Adult anxiety develops similarly to childhood anxiety. It can result from a traumatizing event, genetic predisposition, environmental factors, underlying mental health conditions, and substance use. Children in anxious or insecure environments often find themselves struggling with anxiety in later years as adults.
Adults are also more likely to compound a predisposition towards anxiety by turning to coping methods that involve substances like alcohol, medications, and narcotics.
Similarities in Adult and Childhood Anxiety
In general, there exist more similarities between adult and child anxiety than differences.
While anxiety may present differently between age groups, it’s characterized by the same pervasive and uncontrollable sense of worry that can interfere with our lives. Luckily, the best way to address anxiety is similar for children and adults: cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and other therapeutic modalities. The actual session may look different — for example, in kids, CBT may include more play-based therapy (art, toys and role-playing).
If you’re looking for support as you or your loved ones work through anxiety, we at Bhatia Psychology are here to help. Reach out to schedule a time to talk with one of our licensed and professional care providers today.