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Stress vs. Clinical Anxiety and How to Spot the Difference

June 19, 2020

Many factors may be contributing to the rise in anxiety disorders among children and adolescents — the information influx of digital media for one, but also earlier diagnosis. Recognizing the problem is the first step in helping your child if they are indeed suffering from anxiety. Because parents and adult caregivers are often the first to spot signs, knowing what to look out for is crucial. 

Everyday Stress vs. Anxiety Disorders

Feelings of stress or worry are a natural, healthy response to daily life. In fact, an absence of these in facing real-life obstacles may be deemed abnormal. Stress or fear alone does not need to be treated, per se, but must be coped with. A child may learn many tools to manage stress, and parents and adult caregivers are usually the most critical models of healthy stress management. As a child develops, they often learn to manage fear by mimicking behaviors they see in others when stressful situations arise. 

Signs of stress include thoughts of worry or panic, feelings of fear or doom, difficulty thinking clearly, sweating, rapid breathing or heart rate and feeling overwhelmed, as outlined by the National Institute of Mental Health. These are considered normal physiologic fight-or-flight responses in particularly stressful situations. 

Unlike everyday stress, clinical anxiety is a medical disorder defined by excessive feelings of worry or persistent, even intrusive thoughts about certain fears or constant fear in general. 

When Worry Takes Over (Red Flags)

The primary difference between a healthy or expected degree of stress as opposed to clinical anxiety is impairment in functioning, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. If worry or physical fight-or-flight responses affect your child’s ability to do normal daily activities, they may be suffering from clinical anxiety. Activities that might be affected include:

  • Sleeping

  • Eating

  • School performance

  • Social interactions (playing/working with others)

  • Running errands or doing usual household chores

  • Playing or enjoying hobbies

  • Talking or usual age-appropriate discussions

  • Riding in the car, leaving the home or driving (for adolescents) 

While interference with routines may be anxiety-related, other possible causes may be identified as well. Recognizing signs and talking to your child’s doctor are the first steps in helping to identify and manage anxiety. Treatments may include counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy and, in more severe cases, medication. 

Coping Tips, Prevention and Treatment

Some techniques to cope with stressful or fearful situations may include:

  • Recognizing feelings of worry and their physical effects on the body

  • Thinking through the situation and what specifically causes feelings of worry

  • Talking about thoughts or feelings of worry

  • Deep breathing 

  • Exercise

Ask yourself what might be causing your child to have a heightened sense of fear. The COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, is intensifying worry not only for adults but for children. Help your child understand that such situations, while unusual and perhaps threatening, can be handled with reasonable measures and precautions. Other more typical situations that may cause fear or panic for your child may include personal illness or the illness or death of a loved one, traumatic experiences such as motor vehicle accidents, domestic abuse or violence, performance challenges such as exams, larger school assignments or extracurricular events, such as a major sports match. Still others may include horror movies, violent video games and gruesome images or videos. 

If you struggle with anxiety yourself, talk with your doctor about how to handle stress in a healthy way. While there is a genetic component to anxiety and mood disorders, modeling coping mechanisms can help to offset even a genetic predisposition. Showing your child that a challenge may be difficult but not usually a cause for panic can be an incredible tool for a developing child.

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