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- Anxiety, Fears & Phobias
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Most people feel afraid in specific situations such as delivering a speech, taking an exam or starting a new school. This fear can be a positive, motivating force which enhances performance. However, too much anxiety or general nervousness can be extremely distressing, creating such uncertainty and fear that the person experiencing it cannot function normally. When fear becomes extreme, it can become debilitating.
Anxiety is a generalised feeling of fear and apprehension that may be related to a particular situation or object – and everyone experiences it.
As with adults, children and young people respond differently to life’s stressors depending on their age, individual personalities and coping skills. In most cases, fear and anxiety in children are often natural and change or disappear with age. For example, a child who experiences separation anxiety as a preschooler may become a social butterfly who fearlessly bounds into school a few years later.
Fears may develop from a traumatic experience, but for some, there is no clear event that causes the fear to arise.
If anxious feelings persist, they can take a toll on a child’s sense of well-being. For example, the anxiety associated with social avoidance can have long-term effects as a child with a fear of being rejected can fail to learn important social skills, causing social isolation.
It’s important to recognize and identify the signs and symptoms of childrens’ anxieties so that fears don’t get in the way of everyday life.
Apart from these signs, parents can usually tell when their child is feeling excessively uneasy about something. Lending a sympathetic ear is always helpful, and sometimes just talking about the fear can help a child move beyond it. However, if your child shows no sign of their anxiety reducing over time or develops generalised anxiety (i.e. feels anxious almost constantly, even though nothing specific seems to provoke their anxiety) professional assistance is required.
A form of anxiety – people with panic disorder have sudden overwhelming feelings of acute and disabling anxiety. These are called panic attacks which recur and last for several minutes, sometimes longer. These attacks are often random with no known or identifiable trigger. Some people with panic disorder have frequent attacks, some experience clusters of attacks, and others have infrequent attacks.
Panic disorder is particularly debilitating and the physical effects are intense – it can feel like a heart attack- with:
Panic disorder often begins in the late teens or early adulthood. More women than men have panic disorder but not everyone who experiences panic attacks will develop panic disorder.
Due to the debilitating nature of panic disorders, professional assistance is always recommended.
The fear is unreasonable and disproportionate to the situation.
The most common and disabling symptom of a phobia is a panic attack accompanied by an overwhelming desire to avoid the triggering object or situation. Many psychologists agree that once a phobia is established, it is maintained by the relief the person experiences from escaping or avoiding the feared object or situation. The pattern of behaviour then becomes one of avoidance and can have a detrimental effect on a person’s ability to live a normal life.
Phobias can be caused by genetic and environmental reasons. Children who have a close relative with an anxiety disorder are known to have a greater risk for developing a phobia.
Distressing events can bring on a phobia such as experiencing being trapped in a confined space, exposed to extreme temperatures, nearly drowning, or an animal or insect bite can all be sources of phobias. Phobias are also often found in people with ongoing medical conditions or health concerns. There is a high incidence of phobia development after traumatic brain injuries. Substance abuse and depression also have been connected to phobias.
If a phobia prevents a person from engaging in everyday activities, professional help should be sought.