Anxiety is a common experience to all of us on an almost daily basis. Often, we use terms like  jittery,high strung,and uptight to describe anxious feelings. Feeling anxious is normal and can range from very low levels to such high levels that social, personal, and academic performance is affected. At moderate levels, anxiety can be helpful because it raises our alertness to danger or signals that we need to take some action. Anxiety can arise from real or imagined circumstances.

For example, a student may become anxious about taking a test (real) or be overly concerned that he or she will say the wrong thing and be ridiculed (imagined). Because anxiety results from thinking about real or imagined events,almost any situation can set the stage for it to occur.

Defining Anxiety

There are many definitions of anxiety, but a useful one is apprehension or excessive fear about real or imagined circumstances.The central characteristic of anxiety is worry, which is excessive concern about situations with uncertain outcomes. Excessive worry is unproductive, because it may interfere with the ability to take action to solve a problem. Symptoms of anxiety may be reflected in thinking,behavior, or physical reactions.

Anxiety and Development

Anxiety is a normal developmental pattern that is exhibited differently as children grow older. All of us experience anxiety at some time and cope with it well, for the most part. Some people are anxious about specific things, such as speaking in public, but are able do well in other activities, such as social interactions. Other people may have such high levels of anxiety that their overall ability to function is impaired. In these situations, counseling or other services may be needed.

Infancy and preschool.

Typically, anxiety is first shown at about 7–9 months, when infants demonstrate stranger anxiety and become upset in the presence of unfamiliar people. Prior to that time, most babies do not show undue distress about being around strangers. When stranger anxiety emerges,it signals the beginning of a period of cognitive development when children begin to discriminate among people.

A second developmental milestone occurs at about 12–18 months, when toddlers demonstrate separation anxiety.They become upset when parents leave for a short time, such as going out to dinner. The child may cry, plead for them not to leave, and try to prevent their departure. Although distressing, this normal behavior is a cue that the child is able to distinguish parents from other adults and is aware of the possibility they may not return. Ordinarily, this separation anxiety is resolved by age 2, and the child shows increasing ability to separate from parents. Both of these developmental periods are important and are indicators that cognitive development is progressing as expected.

School age.

At preschool and early childhood levels, children tend to be limited in their ability to anticipate future events, but by middle childhood and adolescence these reasoning skills are usually well developed.

There tends to be a gradual change from global, undifferentiated, and externalized fears to more abstract and internalized worry. Up to about age 8 children tend to become anxious about specific, identifiable events, such as animals, the dark, imaginary figures (monsters under their beds), and of larger children and adults. Young children may be afraid of people that older children find entertaining, such as clowns and Santa Claus.

After about age 8, anxiety-producing events become more abstract and less specific, such as concern about grades, peer reactions, coping with a new school, and having friends. Adolescents also may worry more about sexual, religious, and moral issues, as well how they compare to others and if they fit in with their peers. Sometimes, these concerns can raise anxiety to high levels.

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