Is it Everyday Stress or Problematic Anxiety?

Anxiety is a normative, adaptive response that helps one to prepare for action in the face of potential harm. Most children experience some level of anxiety in response to everyday stress. The experience of everyday stress may not equate with having an anxiety disorder. Differentiating between everyday stress and an anxiety disorder depends on the intensity and duration of the anxiety, how much control the child has over the anxiety, and how interfering the anxiety is the child’s functioning across life domains.

If the child experiences low levels of anxiety, is able to quickly move on from the anxiety, and continues to function in all life domains, they likely do not have an anxiety disorder. For example, a child may feel nervous about an upcoming school test. This motivates the child to study for the test. Although he feels some anxiety during the test, he is able to concentrate and complete the test. After the test is over, he does not perseverate on how well he did and is able to enjoy his usual activities.

In contrast, a child with an anxiety disorder may experience high levels of anxiety prior to the test. He may attempt to avoid the test altogether due to fear of failure. During the test, he likely has difficulty concentrating and completing the test due to his worries and fears. After the test, the child remains upset and unable to move onto other activities due to perseverating over his test performance.

Youth who experience everyday stress may benefit from the same tools and techniques used by youth with anxiety disorders. It may be helpful for youth who experience high levels of stressful situations to learn adaptive skills for managing stress in order to prevent the development of an anxiety disorder.

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