Anxiety disorders – Part 1: Overview
Anxiety – about bad things that might happen, or not being accepted by others, or not being able to handle what’s expected of us – we’ve probably all been there at times. But the teenage/young adult time of life, when the overarching concern is Finding One’s Place in the World, is especially ripe for worry.
In this unfair world of ours, atypical young people are even more prone to anxiety than their peers. So not only do they have to try to cope with neurologically-based difficulties in learning, staying on-task, and socializing – they have to deal with the anxiety about not measuring up. And the ways anxiety impacts them can be as challenging for these young people as their other diagnoses.
Since anxiety is so common in neurodiverse young people, whatever their diagnosis, it’s a topic worth exploring here on the Cinder Cone. As it turns out, I found such a large amount of anxiety-related information worth sharing that it needs to be spread over at least two posts.
We’ll start with some interesting factoids and a look at the types of anxiety disorders.
When seeking an overview, I learned a lot from this Wikipedia article. Here are some excerpts:
Anxiety disorders are partly genetic….
They often occur with other mental disorders, particularly major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, certain personality disorders, and eating disorders. The term anxiety covers four aspects of experiences that an individual may have: mental apprehension, physical tension, physical symptoms and dissociative anxiety. The emotions present in anxiety disorders range from simple nervousness to bouts of terror.
[B]etween 10 and 20 percent of all children will develop a full-fledged anxiety disorder prior to the age of 18, making anxiety the most common mental health issue in young people.
Anxiety in children has a variety of causes; sometimes anxiety is rooted in biology, and may be a product of another existing condition, such as Autism or Asperger’s Disorder. Gifted children are also often more prone to excessive anxiety than non-gifted children. Other cases of anxiety arise from the child having experienced a traumatic event of some kind, and in some cases, the cause of the child’s anxiety cannot be pinpointed.
Anxiety among adolescents and young adults is common due to the stresses of social interaction, evaluation, and body image.
Anxiety and depression can be caused by alcohol abuse, which in most cases improves with prolonged abstinence. Even moderate, sustained alcohol use may increase anxiety levels in some individuals. Caffeine, alcohol and benzodiazepine dependence can worsen or cause anxiety and panic attacks.
See? That’s interesting stuff, isn’t it?
The experience of “having anxiety” varies – not just in intensity, but in what triggers the unease. For the following summary of types of anxiety disorders, my sources here are Wikipedia (again), this article from HelpGuide.org, and this article about childhood anxiety disorders. See if any of these conditions are familiar in yourself or someone you know:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder: People with GAD are chronic worrywarts, to the point where it distracts them from everyday activities. The worries are “persistent, excessive, and unrealistic.” Sufferers often have unfounded foreboding that disaster is in store. GAD is more common in women, and the risk is highest from childhood to middle age. “Children with GAD tend to be very hard on themselves and strive for perfection. They may also seek constant approval or reassurance from others.” [I assume the same is true of teens.]
Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia: Panic disorder involves repeated, unexpected panic attacks. People who suffer these attacks also live in fear of having more panic attacks. Panic disorder typically develops in early adulthood, with women again more prone to suffering this form of anxiety. Agoraphobia is included here because many people with panic disorder avoid places or situations where previous panic attacks occurred, such as crowded public places where it may be hard to escape – including air travel.
Phobia: Sufferers experience overwhelming fear or anxiety when confronted with a specific thing or situation. Most phobias arise unexpectedly during the teen years or early adulthood; that is, before the phobia took hold, the phobic person hadn’t been bothered much by the feared object. People with a phobia usually understand that their reaction is out of proportion to the risk, but they are still overwhelmed and often rearrange their daily activity to avoid the trigger.
Social Anxiety Disorder: This is an intense fear of negative social interactions or public embarrassment. It usually begins in childhood or adolescence, especially the early teen years. Performance anxiety (such as speaking in public) is one form of SAD. A person who actively tries to avoid feeling this type of anxiety may end up in partial or complete social isolation.
The article about childhood anxiety disorders lists selective mutism as a separate category, but it’s related to social anxiety. This is where the individual (usually a child) refuses to speak in situations where talking is expected or necessary. The individual may be talkative in other settings but will not communicate in certain situations (like school). Our son Nathan exhibited selective mutism during his high school years, when he was at his most miserable. Teachers, counselors, and other adults could not get much out of him.
Obsessive-compulsive Disorder: Obsessions are persistent, intrusive, distressing thoughts. Compulsions are urges to repeatedly perform certain acts, often as a way of dealing with the obsessive thoughts (since the house might get broken into, I’ll keep rechecking whether the door is locked). People with OCD usually recognize how irrational they are being, but they feel powerless to stop. Children with OCD are often diagnosed around the age of ten. Boys tend to develop the condition sooner, while for girls the onset is more likely in adolescence.
Separation Anxiety Disorder: This involves an exaggerated level of worry about bad things happening when separated from a person or place. I always thought of this as purely a childhood phenomenon, but Wikipedia says it affects 7% of adults (maybe some cases of homesickness fall in this category?). However, children who suffer from separation anxiety usually have a more severe experience of it than adults – probably because they are so dependent on their parent or caregiver.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: PTSD results from exposure to an extreme negative situation (especially violence), or chronic exposure to a severe stressful occurrence. (Note that Wikipedia includes bullying as one potential cause of PTSD.) Symptoms include flashbacks or nightmares; hypervigilance; avoidance of people or similar situations; and depression, irritability, or emotional numbness. Women are more likely than men to develop PTSD after surviving a traumatic event. I’ve read elsewhere that parents of special-needs children may develop PTSD.
The effects of anxiety can be significant. It can skew interactions with others and impede the ability to focus and get things done. It may also contribute to physical woes like digestive system problems, headaches, fatigue, and insomnia. And those problems can in turn trigger worries ….
Anxiety can diminish our quality of life, damage relationships, and even impact our physical well-being. Young people who are affected by anxiety often turn down fulfilling opportunities that they would otherwise gobble up. When you’re in the process of becoming an adult, avoidance behavior can really derail the course your life takes!
What can be done? I’m glad you asked! In the future, we’ll look at ways to cope with anxiety symptoms and to subdue the troublesome thoughts themselves.
Tags: ADHD In Teenagers, anxiety, Asperger's, autism spectrum, bipolar, co-occurring disorders, depression, diagnoses, disability, emotional disturbance, learning disabilities, mental illnesses, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, parents, phobia, physical symptoms, PTSD, separation anxiety, social anxiety, special needs
About janet565I've lived in the Inland Empire of Southern California since 1982. My profession involves maps and geography. I hope you find the blog useful, and wish you well....
The purpose of this blog
Climbing The Cinder Cone presents resources that may help young people who learn or think differently. The focus is on situations that "fall through the cracks," where it isn't clear what programs or treatments are appropriate.
The blog mostly addresses topics our family has dealt with (or should have known about). Anyone with experience in these areas is invited to chime in!
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