Anxiety in Children

Infant and Children, Stress, Teenages | June 15, 2017 | Author: Naturopath

Children, anxiety

Anxiety in Children

Anxiety, both in adults and children, is an inherent response to a perceived threat and is part of our survival instinct. It is designed to activate our fight or flight response and keep us safe from harm. It is perhaps one of the most important tools that the human body possesses in order to stay safe. For children, anxiety serves as an important protective mechanism and signal for caution in certain situations. It is for this reason that specific expected fears accompany each stage of child development.

anxiety little girlFears and worries throughout childhood often resolve quickly as children learn to master situations or adjust to new challenges. Anxiety can however, become problematic for children when they are experiencing too much worry or they are suffering immensely over what may appear to be insignificant situations.

When worry and avoidance become a child’s automatic response to most situations or children feel constantly wound up, or when coaxing and reassurance are ineffective in moving them through a situation, the anxiety is no longer protecting them.This can then prevent them from fully participating in activities of day to day life such as school, friendships, social interaction and academic performance.

When Anxiety Becomes a Problem

anxiety childIf anxiety starts to impact on a child’s ability to get things done or to function at a certain level then this is termed ‘problem anxiety,’ otherwise known as generalized anxiety. This type tends to be chronic and irrational and as a result a child may begin to show signs of avoidance behaviour and have issues with concentration and short-term memory. Distorted or irrational thoughts can also become a source of excessive worry and behavioural changes can start affecting the way a child lives their life and interacts with other children and adults. Left unchecked, problem anxiety can lead to an anxiety disorder.

According to the American Psychiatric Association anxiety is termed a ‘disorder’ when there is the presence of excessive anxiety and worry about a variety of topics, events, or activities and this worry occurs more often than not for at least six months.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

The most common types of anxiety that children may experience can be grouped into three categories. The most common anxiety disorder that children suffer with is generalized anxiety.

anxiety studentGeneralised anxiety in children includes symptoms such as uncontrollable worry about multiple parts of their lives. These may include things like being on time, doing well on tests, or keeping friendships, health and safety of loved ones and worry or dread about a multitude of things. Worries can feel like a burden, making life feel overwhelming or out of control. The more areas in which a child shows serious worries, the more likely it is that a child has generalized anxiety disorder.

Social anxiety is fear and worry in situations where children must interact with other people, or be the focus of attention. Symptoms may include acting shy, and in severe cases, children may refuse to speak to people they do not know well, especially adults. Those experiencing social anxiety will often try to avoid such situations.

Separation anxiety is the fear and worry children experience when they can’t be with their parents or guardians.

Signs & Symptoms of Anxiety in Children

Physical symptoms

anxiety child tummy acheChildren experiencing anxiety may display many physical symptoms including:

  • Rapid breathing, shortness of breath, or breath holding
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Restlessness
  • Recurring headaches, stomach aches and backaches
  • Fatigue, sleeping difficulties
  • Feelings of choking and dizziness
  • Muscle tension, shaking/trembling, heart palpitations

Behavioural symptoms

Children experiencing anxiety may display many behavioural symptoms including:

  • Clinging to parents, tantrums
  • Refusing to go to school or avoiding social situations
  • Shyness
  • Perfectionism
  • Seeking reassurance
  • Negativity, pessimism

Nutritional Deficiencies That May Contribute to Anxiety

There have been numerous studies that have found a correlation between diet and mental health in children. This is because many foods contain nutrients that are vital to hormonal and neurochemical activity and balance in our brains. Symptoms of anxiety can be worsened by vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. Foods that have been found to have the biggest impact on childhood anxiety are as follows:

Omega-3 fatty acids.

anxiety children fish oilChildren who are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids are more susceptible to mood instability. Countless studies have shown omega-3 fatty acids have tremendous health benefits as well as mental health benefits. Omega-3 deficiency has been linked to depression, anxiety and ADHD in children.

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids are fatty or cold-water fish such as mackerel, trout, herring, sardines, salmon, halibut, bluefish and tuna. Also nuts and seeds such as walnuts, flax seeds and pecans.

Oils that are high in omega-3 fatty acids are flaxseed oil, cod liver oil and sardine oil. Vegetables high in omega-3 fatty-acids include leafy greens such as spinach, kale and collard greens.
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Magnesium

There have been several studies over the last decade that have linked magnesium deficiency with anxiety as well as the reduction in anxiety after taking magnesium supplements. Increasing foods in a child’s diet that are high in magnesium are easy to do. These foods include spinach, chard, pumpkin seeds, yoghurt or kefir, almonds, black beans, avocado, figs and bananas.
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B Vitamins

Deficiencies in B vitamins impact negatively on the nervous system and one symptom of deficiency can be anxiety. Good food sources of B vitamins include berries, legumes, nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens, eggs, broccoli, fish, lean meats and organ meats.
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 Vitamin D

anxiety vitamin dVitamin D rich foods boost serotonin, a neurotransmitter strongly associated with both depression and anxiety. Fish such as cod, tuna, herring, salmon, mackerel and sardines as well as eggs and good quality butters, are all good sources of vitamin D.
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Herbs That May Help Children with Anxiety:

Certain herbs have an affinity for the nervous system and fall into one of two categories for the treatment of anxiety. These include nervine tonics and nervine relaxants. Nervine tonics strengthen and feed the nervous system and are good for stress or nervous debility while nervine relaxants are used for stress, tension and anxiety relief. These herbs include chamomile, passion flower and valerian.

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnate) is used for nervous restlessness and has the ability to reduce symptoms of anxiety. It is often given for insomnia.

anxiety children sleepValerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a sleep aid used for insomnia as it contains sedative compounds. Valerian is often combined with other sedative herbs such as hops, chamomile, and lemon balm.

Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is a carminative and an analgesic herb used for anxiety and insomnia.  It is a gentle sedative herb so is very safe to use in children.

Lavender (Lavandula hybrida) is a carminative and an anti-depressant herb. It is effective at relieving headaches, especially when they are related to stress. It helps to relieve depression and is a gentle strengthening tonic for the nervous system in states of nervous debility and exhaustion. It can also be used to sooth and promote natural sleep.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is used to reduce stress and anxiety and help with sleep, often being combined with other calming herbs such as hops, chamomile, and valerian.
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Anxiety in children is becoming more and more prevalent. It seems that life has become very fast paced and stressful not only for adults, but for children too. Despite the complexities of anxiety, there are many things that can be done to help children overcome it. These include dietary changes, nutritional supplements, herbs, yoga and mindfulness and relaxation techniques. It is also very important that children learn the skills to manage anxiety so it doesn't get in the way of them enjoying life.  

References

1. National Institute of Mental Health, Any Anxiety Disorder Among Children:www.http://www.nimh.nih.gov/statistics/1ANYANX_child.shtml
2. National Institute of Mental Health, Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents:www.http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety-disorders-in-children-and-adolescents/index.shtml
3.Recognising and Treating Childhood Anxiety Disorders
www.http://ncib.nlm.nin.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1071700/
4.Ramsawh HS, Chavira DA, Stein MB. Burden of Anxiety Disorders in Paediatric Medical Settings: Prevalence, Phenomenology, and a Research Agenda. Arch Ped Adolesc Med. 2010; 164 (10):965-972
5.Pediatric Generalized Anxiety Disorder: emedecine.medscape.com/article916933-overview
6.Osiecki, H. (2004). The Nutrient Bible. 6th ed. BioConcepts Publishing, 18-26.
7.Hoffmann, D. (2003). Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies. London:Element Books, 64-108.
8. Osiecki, H. (2001). The Physician’s Handbook of Clinical Nutrition. 6th ed. Queensland:BioConcepts Publishing, 302-305.
9. Balch JF, Balch PA. (2000). Prescription for Nutritional Healing. 3rd ed. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.
10. The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents.
http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/mental-pubs-m-child2

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