Anxiety disorders constitute the most prevalent class of mental health problems in children and adolescents, with prevalence rates estimated from 15–20%. The class of anxiety and related disorders includes Separation Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Specific Phobia, Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Individuals with anxiety disorders are characteristically hypervigilant: They scan both the internal environment, the body, and the external environment for possible anxiety triggers. Novel experiences are usually not perceived as neutral or worthy of curiosity, but as potential threats, leading invariably to avoidance coping.
When avoidance is not possible, people with anxiety become overwhelmed and tend to catastrophize the worst. Sometimes the catastrophizing can be very intense and include anger outbursts and efforts to control or manipulate the situation to allow avoidance coping.
Anxiety can present in a number of ways, manifesting as both physical and cognitive symptoms. Physical symptoms include headaches, chest pain, shortness of breath, and abdominal pain, and cognitive symptoms can include worry about the future or things in the past, problems separating from parents for even safe activities, and trouble sleeping alone at night. Although the symptoms of anxiety are usually well known to youth and their families, the symptoms are not always present, as they remain latent until triggered.
Families come to live with and tolerate the symptoms or explain them as part of a child or adolescent endowment or personality; however, once triggered by an anxiety provoking stimulus, youth display disproportionate states of worry or apprehension that are highly persistent and unresponsive to any reassurance.