Kate Collins-Donnelly; therapist, consultant, and author of Starving the Anxiety Gremlin, talks about the rise of anxiety in children. In this article, Kate discusses what can be done to help young people struggling with anxieties and shares a letter from one of the young people she has worked with on her experiences of overcoming problems caused by anxiety.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health disorders in the UK and worldwide. The UK ONS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Survey published in 2004 estimated that 290,000 children and young people nationally had an anxiety disorder, which equated to 2.2% of 5 to 10 year olds and 4.4% of 11-16 year olds. Leading anxiety charity, Anxiety UK, estimate that one in six 16-24 year olds have suffered from an anxiety disorder and five pupils in an average school class will have experienced anxiety. And results form an NSPCC survey published in 2004 revealed that 34% of the young people studied felt that they were always worrying about something, with 11% feeling extremely worried.
We still don’t know the true prevalence rates amongst national and global populations as, like many other mental health disorders, anxiety disorders remain under-reported and under-diagnosed. However, what is clear is that anxiety is a common cause of distress for children and young people today.
Just like for adults, anxiety can come in different shapes and sizes for children and young people too – with some children and young people getting anxious about a variety of things and others only experiencing anxiety in response to very specific situations. Common worries for children and young people include school work, exams, friendships, family circumstances, health, death, bullying, body image, and much more. And children and young people can experience anything from normal occasional worries, fears and nerves to long-lasting and severe anxiety disorders that include generalised anxiety disorder, simple and complex phobias, panic disorder, separation anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and health anxiety.
Not only is anxiety common and varied, it also has the potential to be debilitating, especially when experienced on a frequent basis. This is partly because anxiety can bring such a wide range of cognitive, physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms with it, including concentration problems, obsessive thoughts, headaches, racing heartbeat, panic attacks, loss of confidence, avoidance of situations and procrastination to name a few. And it is important to remember that these symptoms can vary from young person to young person. It is also because anxiety can have impacts on all aspects of a young person’s life, including their studies, work, relationships, physical health, mental health and emotional wellbeing, future prospects, motivation and much more.
But thankfully, by learning a range of cognitive behavioural strategies and techniques, children and young people can learn to manage their anxiety and bring it under control. And that is why I wrote Starving the Anxiety Gremlin… to highlight to children and young people that by learning how to think and act differently they could starve their Anxiety Gremlins for good! You see, if we all starve our Anxiety Gremlins of their favourite food – our anxiety – they’ll shrink and shrivel away!
And here is a letter from one young person that I worked with to show starving our Anxiety Gremlins really is possible! Well done Chloe! You are an inspiration!
When I was six I developed a worry. At my birthday party I was quite badly sick and from then on I was terrified of vomiting. My worry caused panic attacks, which made me shake and cry; and gave me a runny tummy and nausea, which made me even more anxious. I thought that there was no escape from my worry. I wasn’t even sure what life would be like without it. I found it difficult to be left alone at school. I didn’t like to leave the house because I was scared of being sick or needing the toilet and not knowing where it was. My worry was taking over my life. I didn’t know how to make it stop and my family didn’t know how to help me.
We went to see the doctor and then some people who are trained to help children with worries. At first trying to get over my fear of sickness felt like an impossible task but slowly I found ways of fighting my worry. I learned to breathe slowly when I felt panicky and to turn my scary thoughts into sensible ones. Keeping a worry diary and telling my family and friends when I was having a particularly bad day helped too. Unfortunately none of this works over night, but if you follow the steps in Starving the Anxiety Gremlin you will learn to manage your worries. With help, I began to have less panic attacks and suddenly life didn’t feel like this huge burden. One day, it will feel like that for you too.
When I was little I didn’t know of anyone else who was going through similar things so I felt very alone. I thought I was weird. But I wasn’t weird and I definitely wasn’t alone. Lots of people have a worry; just like me, just like you. I know it may feel like there is no way out but one day things will seem a lot easier and life will seem fun again. Never forget that you are strong enough to cope with your worry and that you have the most fantastic brain to help you overcome it.
I am now 17. I still worry sometimes because everyone does but I don’t worry a lot about being sick anymore and I’ve stopped having panic attacks. If you are feeling worried and scared it is really important that you tell people how you are feeling so they can help you. I promise it gets better. Remember that you are not alone in how you feel, you aren’t weird and that most of all you are incredibly brave!
Love from your fellow worrier,
 Green, H., McGinnity, A., Meltzer, H., Ford, T. and Goodman, R. (2005) Mental Health of Children and Young People in Great Britain 2004. London: Office
 NSPCC (2004) Someone to Turn To? Who Can Children and Young People Trust
When They are Worried and Need to Talk? London: NSPCC.