when anxiety doesn't look like anxiety
“Anxiety is one of those diagnoses that is a great masquerader,” explains Dr. Laura Prager, director of the Child Psychiatry Emergency Service at Massachusetts General Hospital in an article featured for The Child Mind Institute. “It can look like a lot of things.” Indeed, anxious children react to their environment in a variety of ways, some of which parents may find surprising. Often, a child diagnosed with an anxiety disorder will behave like an angry, sad or disruptive child. In fact, the Child Mind Institute shares that “anxiety manifests differently in part because it is based on a physiological response to a threat in the environment, a response that maximizes the body’s ability to either face danger or escape danger.”
Fight or Flight
“Anxiety happens when a part of the brain, the amygdala, senses trouble. When it senses threat, real or imagined, it surges the body with hormones (including cortisol, the stress hormone) and adrenaline to make the body strong, fast and powerful,” says author and psychologist Karen Young. “This is the fight or flight response and it has been keeping us alive for thousands of years. It’s what strong, healthy brains are meant to do.”
An anxious brain is a strong, healthy brain that is a little overprotective. It is more likely to sense threat and hit the panic button “just in case,” often without warning or need. For kids with anxiety, any situation that is new, unfamiliar, difficult or stressful counts as a potential threat.
Common and Hidden Anxiety Symptoms
Warning signs commonly associated with anxiety in children include, avoiding specific activities, inhibited behavior, clinginess and a strong aversion to being separated from his or her parents. However, some symptoms of anxiety are less common and parents, caregivers and teachers might not seem them as warning signs for anxiety. Those hidden symptoms can include temper tantrums and disruptive behavior in structured settings like a classroom, where expectations are high and the pressure beyond what they can handle.
Anxiety.com shares additional ways beyond tantrums and disruption in which anxiety can manifest. Those include the following:
- Inattention, poor focus
- Somatic symptoms like headaches or stomachaches
- Refusing to go to school
- Meltdowns before school about clothing, hair, shoes, socks
- Meltdowns after school about homework
- Difficulties with transitions within school, and between school and an activity/sport
- Difficulty settling down for bed
- Having exceptionally high expectations for school work, homework and sports performance
Living and coping with anxiety is difficult, and it can be even more so for a child; however, help is available and with care, children can live happy and healthy lives. Remember that anxiety can manifest itself in many ways and if your child displays any of these anxiety-related symptoms consistently or with increasing intensity, you may want to consult with a children’s mental health professional for additional support.
For hope and healing,
As the director of communications for Clarity Child Guidance Center, Mike shares the insights of children’s mental health experts, both inside and outside of Clarity CGC, who work with families looking for answers about their children’s mental health
If you are experiencing an emergency, please call 9-1-1. If you need help locating mental health resources in your area, visit the Bexar County Community Resource website, call your local health department or the National Alliance Mental Illness's helpline at 800-950-NAMI (6264).