Is worrying getting in your way? Try this
Anxiety disorder – a disorder characterized by spending a significant amount of time worrying, worrying that interferes with mood or daily activities and a preoccupation with irrational fears – is on the rise among children in the U.S.
The Child Mind Institute recently released their 2018 Children’s Mental Health Report which showed a 17 percent increase in anxiety disorder diagnoses. One cause for the increase could be that more health care providers are recognizing the symptoms of anxiety in young people, and are diagnosing it more. Dr. Gabrielle Roberts, a clinical psychologist at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill., says another reason for the increase could be that talking about and seeking treatment for mental health issues is becoming less stigmatized, which empowers people to come forward and get the help they need.
“There are many potential explanations for this trend. For example, digital technology has also changed the way we live, including how we socialize (virtually vs. face to face), productivity expectations, how and when we receive information and the boundary—or lack thereof—between the outside world and our homes,” says Dr. Roberts. “All of these factors can affect our anxiety level. We also know that use of social media has increased tremendously over the past ten years, and the use of social media has been linked to anxiety.”
So, what exactly is anxiety, and how can parents tell if it’s affecting their child? The Child Mind Institute describes anxiety as an “invisible condition”, one that can go undiagnosed for some time or can be misdiagnosed. Dr. Roberts says anxiety disorders might often be mistaken for attention issues, problems with behavior or a bad attitude (outbursts or a refusal to participate in activities) or medical problems.
Although the disorder can be hard to spot, there are common symptoms associated with it. In addition to excessive worrying that interferes with mood and daily life and a preoccupation with irrational fears, signs of anxiety disorder include worried thoughts that interfere with one’s ability to concentrate or remember things, a feeling of panic, irritability, restlessness, feeling fidgety or tense, sleep difficulties, and physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, elevated heart rate, abdominal discomfort, and headaches.
Everyone suffers bouts of anxiety from time to time. In certain circumstances, it can even be healthy and helpful to experience anxiety, but when anxiety disrupts our ability to enjoy or effectively participate in daily life, Dr. Roberts says it’s time to take a closer look at what’s going on.
“Anxiety can motivate us and help us better prepare for tasks at school or work. It can help keep us safe by raising our attention and heightening our awareness of our surroundings and can prompt us to seek help for medical concerns or other problems,” says Dr. Roberts. “Anxiety becomes problematic, or maladaptive, when we are worrying more than is necessary for our safety and well-being, and the worry is out of proportion to the threat.”
The Child Mind Institute reports that 30 percent of children will affected by anxiety at some point, yet 80 percent never get help. If someone is suffering from anxiety, Dr. Roberts says it is important that they seek treatment from a mental health professional. In addition to counseling, Dr. Roberts recommends the following to help manage and reduce anxiety:
- Spend time with friends and family. Dr. Roberts recommends spending time with friends and family when feeling anxious so as not to isolate yourself. “Distraction can be very helpful,” says Dr. Roberts. “It may even feel good to talk with those close to you about what you are experiencing.”
- Get enough sleep. Sleep is very important – not only for managing anxiety, but for improving your overall health. If falling asleep is a struggle, Dr. Roberts says keeping a journal next to your bed and writing down your thoughts before you turn in for the night can sometimes help. “Consciously thinking about a happy time or place as you close your eyes and go to sleep might also help you fall asleep,” says Dr. Roberts.
- Talk back to your negative thoughts. When negative thoughts pop up, remind yourself of the positive and the things that are going well in your life. Be kind to yourself and don’t give negative thoughts the opportunity to grow.
- Focus on what you can control. “Remember that you cannot control everything,” says Dr. Roberts. The only things you can control are your actions and reactions to people, places and events. Focus on making changes in those areas instead of trying to make changes outside yourself to help reduce anxiety.
- Be a detective. When negative thoughts surface, evaluate the validity of your thinking by looking for hard evidence to support or refute the thought. In doing so, you will likely find that there is often much evidence to challenge a negative thought or expectation.
- Exercise has many benefits, including helping to reduce anxiety. Dr. Roberts suggests building in time to exercise several times per week. Take a walk, participate in a group exercise class or run on the treadmill. The exercise you choose isn’t as important as making sure you’re physically active throughout the week.
- Schedule “worry time”. “This may sound silly, but giving yourself permission to worry for a defined period of time during the day might make it easier to quiet worried thoughts at other times,” says Dr. Roberts. If you tend to worry, block out a short amount of time to process your worrisome thoughts and then move on with the rest of your day.
- Have fun. “Plan something enjoyable to do every day,” says Dr. Roberts. “Try to make this time off-limits to worrying.”
About the Author
Colette A. Harris, health enews contributor, is the public affairs and marketing coordinator at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Il. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and has nearly a decade of experience writing about health and wellness, which are her passions. When she’s not writing, you can find her practicing yoga, cooking, reading, or traveling.