When Anxiety Becomes a Problem
Humans have survived as a species because we have developed a natural alarm system that keeps us looking out for signs of danger (i.e., the negatives). We are constantly thinking about what happened, what might happen, and what we can do to prevent bad things from happening. Stress and anxiety are natural responses that are meant to trigger our alarm system when we sense a threat and help us quickly react to avoid danger. But as evolved as the human brain is, it cannot tell the difference between real danger and perceived danger. If we perceive everyday tasks to be threatening, we can find ourselves in a chronic state of stress and anxiety that results in real symptoms (i.e., biochemical, physiological, emotional, mental, behavioural) and poor outcomes (e.g., decreased performance, social isolation, diminished mental health, physical illness).
Stress is what we experience when we sense an immediate threat in our environment. Anxiety is what we experience when our brains wander into the past or future, and we imagine a threat that is not directly in front of us. In this way, anxiety is harder to figure out than stress. Let's consider the cycle of anxiety:
Worry/ panic. Thoughts and feelings bounce off each other all the time. Worry is when our brain anticipates a threat in the future and goes into proactive problem-solving mode, helping us develop escape plans just in case. Worry can trigger fear - and fear can trigger worry - resulting in real psychological and physiological changes that impact our functioning. Anxiety resembles stress and can trigger a full stress response or panic attack (e.g., increased heart rate, muscle tension, sweating, headache, stomachache, dizziness, nausea, a tight chest, impulsivity, difficulty focusing, and difficulty thinking).
Avoidance/ escape. When we feel overwhelmed with fear, we become consumed by an instinctive need to avoid and escape danger (real or imaginary). We cannot focus, problem-solve, or perform to the best of our ability. When children experience overwhelming anxiety, it gets in the way of all their engagements - including academics, sports, chores, everyday tasks, and friendships.
Temporary relief. When we avoid overwhelming fear, we experience an immediate sense of relief. The relief reinforces to our brain that there was danger, we stayed safe by escaping it, and we need to be vigilant in the future so we can avoid it should it reappear.
Resurgence of worry/ panic. Our brain learns that avoidance makes anxiety go away. Children with big anxiety naturally learn to worry - this is their brain going into overdrive, proactively problem-solving, to keep them safe (e.g., 'what if' and worrying about all the unknowns).
Loss of confidence in the ability to cope. The next time we face a fear that we averted, it will feel scarier, and we will move more quickly to run and hide. If we help children avoid their fears, they can quickly lose their confidence to navigate themselves in a world that they perceive as full of danger. As anxiety grows, our children begin to withdraw - their world shrinks, and they begin to lose their confidence that they can handle challenges. Anxious children are ridden with fear and lose motivation to participate in life.
Remember that stress and anxiety are natural responses and are not necessarily problematic. Signs that anxiety is problematic include: if you notice that you (or your child) are preoccupied with worry/fear or if worry/fear are getting in the way of your participation in and enjoyment of life. It is important to break the cycle of anxiety because, if left untreated, chronic anxiety can lead to depression and a range of other mental/physical health challenges.
- Written by Cynthia Yoo, Registered Psychologist -
Anxiety Canada is a website offering free information, articles, and resources on worry, panic, perfectionism, social anxiety, and phobias
My Anxiety Plan is a free self-guided study plan to help children, youth, and parents manage anxiety
MindShift CBT is a free evidence-based app to help manage anxiety
Calm - resource with meditations, stories, music, talks, and more
Headspace - app with guided and unguided meditations as well as animations for younger kids
Books on helping parents support their child with anxiety:
Anxious Kids Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children - by Lynn Lyons & Reid Wilson
Parent-Led CBT for Child Anxiety: Helping Parents Help their Kids - by Cathy Creswell, Monika Parkinson, Kerstin Thirlwall, & Lucy Willetts
Hey Warrior: A Book For Kids About Anxiety - by Karen Young