Anxiety affects approximately 40 million adults, or 18 percent of the U.S. population, and this number is expected to increase exponentially over the course of the next 10-20 years. It is now estimated that 1 in 8 children is also affected by some form of anxiety, and this number too appears to be on the increase.
We know the personal costs of anxiety: decreased productivity, increased risks of chronic illness such as hypertension and diabetes and decreased quality of life. We know the financial cost too: It is estimated that the United States spends $42 billion annually to offset the effects of anxiety. But now, parents and caregivers are becoming more attuned to the cost of anxiety to our children’s health and well-being.
Studies show that a child suffering from anxiety performs poorly in school, is at increased risk for substance abuse issues and is at greater risk for suffering from anxiety and other associated disorders such as depression as an adult.
So what can we, as parents, do to reduce our children’s risk of developing anxiety? One of the most important steps you can take is to assure your health and well-being first. In doing so you accomplish several things:
- You provide a nurturing environment for your child to flourish and feel safe
- A less anxious parent is a more perceptive and receptive parent. You are now in a space to more readily identify behavioral changes in your child so you can intervene at an earlier time.
- You are patterning healthy behavior and it is much easier for your child to learn when what you say is reinforced by what you do.
To gain an understand how treating your anxiety can have a positive impact on reducing your child’s risk of developing anxiety, we must define anxiety; identify who is at risk; identify potential triggers (such as lifestyle factors); and learn how to put strategies in place to help cope with and reduce anxiety.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is actually part of our stress response system and functions as an alert to warn us of potential danger or the need to focus and pay attention. If we need to remove ourselves from danger, this system prepares us to do so by flooding our bodies with adrenaline and cortisol. These two important substances then act on multiple systems in the body; they increase heart and respiratory rate, increase breakdown of muscle tissue for fuel, dilate pupils and decrease blood supply to the digestive system by constricting blood vessels that supply intestines. This allows us to see more clearly, prepares muscles for action by fueling them with sugar and more oxygen and decreases our digestion to provide more energy and fuel to offset the increased requirements of our muscle tissues. When the crisis is over, the body goes back to its normal function by engaging the “rest and digest” system that engages the calming response. However if the stress response is constantly activated and the body remains on constant alert, the very system that helps to protect you from danger is now the system that is placing you directly in harm’s way. Excessive exposure to adrenaline and cortisol can cause irregular heart rate, high blood pressure, insomnia, increased levels of inflammation, elevated blood sugar levels and even increase our risk of other mental conditions such as depression. Prolonged stress can lead to decreased muscle bone and even decreased bone density predisposing us to osteoporosis and falls.
You then live in constant fear and dread that something is going to go wrong but you can’t identify a specific issue. You may notice yourself becoming more irritable and even forgetful. You may begin to worry excessively about routine things such as going outside, checking the mail box or even answering the phone. You may start noticing a decrease in productivity and even more impactful is the adverse effect it has on your relationships with family and friends. Your physical symptoms can include palpitations or sensation of heart racing; tremulousness and shortness of breath; feeling like you can’t take a deep breath; or just a general feeling of dread or impending doom. If this sounds like a horrible place to be, imagine it from the eyes of a child—reason number one to treat your anxiety first.
Who is at risk for developing anxiety disorder?
According to the National Institutes of Health, most forms of anxiety occur more in women compared to men. In fact, women are twice as likely as men to be afflicted with generalized anxiety disorder. This prevalence is not limited to adults but is seen in children as well. Several studies have shown that women respond more intensely to negative stimuli than men and this might make them more susceptible to mental conditions such as anxiety and depression. Neuroimaging show that an important emotional center in the brain, the amygdala, is activated more in women with negative emotions. This same center is more strongly activated in men with positive emotions. Bottom line: Women pay more attention to negative emotions while men pay more attention to positive emotions. This may suggest that parenting techniques that work for one child may produce anxiety in another.
Children of parents who suffer from social anxiety disorder are at increased risk for developing anxiety themselves, according to John Hopkins Children’s Center. This prevalence has been noted in other studies as well and is often referred to as “trickle-down anxiety.” Researchers have identified certain parental behavioral patterns such as difficulty showing affection and a tendency to being hypercritical as having a significant impact on a child’s risk of developing anxiety.
We know that genetics plays a role as well but as with many conditions, it is the genetics plus environment that determines expression. Studies are now suggesting that even the prenatal environment is important. For example, consumption of high amounts of junk foods during pregnancy has been linked to an increased occurrence of anxiety and depression in children. High maternal stress and anxiety during pregnancy is linked to increased risk of anxiety as an adult and increased risk of illness as an infant. So as we can see from all of the above the mental health of the parent is an important factor in the mental health of the child.
What are potential triggers for anxiety?
Many times we tend to think of anxiety or stress as being triggered by an external event such as work or our ability to meet certain expectations, an emotional or physical trauma or being exposed to a toxic environment that makes us feel unsafe in some way. Often, this is indeed the case, and part of treating your anxiety would involve identifying and addressing these issues in a safe environment.
However, we now know that anxiety symptoms can be triggered by illness, increased inflammation, poor diet, lack of exercise and poor digestive health. For example, studies link consumption of junk food and refined foods with increased risk of anxiety and depression while conversely showing that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and high quality lean meats and fish are associated with a decreased risk of the same. In fact, the earlier a child consumes junk food the higher his or her risk of anxiety and depression.
How can we get back on track? The first step is to recognize your anxiety. Next, if you are suffering from significant physical symptoms such as chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath or excessive tremors, check with your physician to ensure that you are physically well as other medical conditions such as hypoglycemia and heart disease can mimic anxiety. Take inventory of your lifestyle habits because more and more studies are confirming what we have suspected for a long time: a healthy diet, exercise, a good night’s sleep, healthy relationships and an attitude of gratitude helps us to cope with anxiety and stress.
- Many laughs a day keeps the doctor and the jitters away. Laughter decreases stress hormones and decreased inflammation that can trigger a stress response.
- Make exercise part of your lifestyle first aid kit. Exercise decreases stress levels, increases hormones and peptides that improve moods. As a bonus, exercise can also increase energy, memory and learning. It is one of the few modalities that is capable of increasing energy while calming at the same time. It seems the calming effects of exercise employ the same mechanism as anti-anxiety medications but without the adverse effect of over sedation.
- Eat a diet high in vegetables, fruits whole grains, lean protein and healthy omega-3 fats because it helps to reduce anxiety in you and your child.
- Turn off the lights and balance your cortisol levels. Darkness induces the hormone melatonin that helps to balance the stress hormone cortisol levels. Also, a good night’s sleep helps us to make better decisions, keep our focus and decrease inflammation.
- Limit nightly cocktails. While alcohol might seem to soothe anxiety at first, it can lead to insomnia and increased anxiety or increased risk of depression.
- Finally, realize that you may need professional help to develop coping strategies and retrain the brain to process anxiety through a different pathway. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be helpful as part of treatment regimen. So, get help if you need it.
Dr. Eudene Harry is the medical director of Oasis Wellness & Rejuvenation Center, an integrative holistic lifestyle clinic in Orlando, Florida. She is board certified in both emergency and holistic medicine. She is also the author of “Anxiety 101: The Holistic Approach to Managing Your Anxiety and Taking Back Your Life,” which is available at www.amazon.com. For more information, visit www.livinghealthylookingyounger.com.