The Consequences of Persistent Childhood Anxiety - On Second Thought: from Iffy to Witty Thoughts
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The Consequences of Persistent Childhood Anxiety

The Consequences of Persistent Childhood Anxiety

Mental health diagnoses such as ADHD, depression, conduct disorders, and anxiety are among the most prevalent in our youth. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified that 9.4% of children ages 3 to 17 were diagnosed with anxiety between 2016 and 2019. This statistic suggests that approximately 5.8 million children are struggling with anxiety symptoms, lending the question of how this impacts their development and long-term mental health. There are gaps in the nation’s ability to track children’s mental health, both the prevalence of children with mental disorders and the data on positive mental health indicators such as good self-esteem and resiliency.

Research published in a 2022 JAMA Pediatrics study identified that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, childhood anxiety was on the rise. Though social distancing practices during the pandemic likely exacerbated growing mental health needs among children, difficulty in access to care and increased rates of depression and anxiety in parents are likely contributors to this growing crisis over the past several years. There is cause to worry about the impact of this growing trend in childhood anxiety disorders. A growing body of research indicates that early exposure to anxiety can impact the areas of the brain associated with emotional development and learning.

Chronic anxiety produces an environment of stress and fear in areas of the brain responsible for developing a healthy stress response system, processing emotions, and social development, essentially impacting the entire architecture of their developing brains. The amygdala and hippocampus are essential areas of the brain that are significantly responsible for how the individual learns and processes emotions. Studies have shown that chronic anxiety affects the growth and performance of these areas of the brain. The result is difficulty in differentiating threats in their environment, not being able to identify when they are safe versus when they are in danger. This has severe consequences on their ability to interact with others in social settings, form healthy relationships, and learn in academic environments. A study reported in JAMA in 2009 identified that chronic stress, such as that caused by persistent anxiety, can produce difficulty in cognitive processes and learning. In individuals with chronic anxiety, their ability to process information and manage their emotions is generally impaired. This can have staggering implications for children in youth in all areas of their lives.

Mental health professionals have a call to action to intervene in this wrong direction trend in children’s mental health. Barriers to access to mental healthcare, prevention, and early intervention programs in schools present opportunities to ameliorate preventable cognitive and mental health impairments that can have lifelong implications. Not only should efforts be directed at children and youth, but also at the mental health needs of adults with children in the home. Significant mental health problems or substance use in parents and domestic violence in the home can produce anxiety for children and, consequently, negatively affect their development.

The critical importance of early intervention for youth who experience excessive anxiety is evident in the need to prevent long-term anxiety that can lead to mental health impairment, diminished academic performance, poor emotional control, poor social interactions, or unhealthy relationships across their lifespan. Policies with a broad mandate to offer preventative services and early intervention in schools would likely have more significant long-term impacts if they focused on preventing chronic anxiety in young children.