700 Children's® – A Blog by Pediatric Experts

Feeling Worried? Stress, Anxiety and Adjustment Disorders in Children

Jul 28, 2020
Child with hands over face

There isn’t a perfect definition of stress, but it is a common feeling these days. Why are we experiencing so much of it? Dictionaries define stress as the feelings that result from pressure or tension. Stress is a very normal part of life. When big events happen on a global scale everyone feels more stressed!

But don’t worry (ha!), humans are programmed to handle stress. Many years ago, physical and emotional stress response helped us survive, and even thrive, despite remarkable odds. The same body and brain structures that kept our ancestors alive, now serve to remind us to wear our seatbelts or study for an upcoming test.  

It can be difficult to think of stress as both physical and emotional. Imagine the last time someone jumped out to scare you! Did you scream? Did you imagine something bad was happening? Could you feel your heart beat or your stomach flip? Did you run away? Did you freeze? These are a few ways that your body can respond to stress. We don’t always have immediate control of these automatic responses.

Fortunately, many of us don’t experience these big heart-jumping moments daily. However, daily, ongoing stress can have a big impact over time. Long-term negative stress has been linked to many health conditions. Stress can also make certain chronic conditions harder to manage.

Can Stress Be a Good Thing?

Stress is an important part of life and can serve important functions including reminding us of important dates or events. Stress can even help us perform our best. 

The good type of stress is called eustress. Eustress is shown to have positive effects including increasing the functioning of our body and mind and making us feel happy! Most of us feel good stress when we ride a rollercoaster or plan a fun trip. Eustress can also be experienced after achieving a big goal like graduating from high school or getting a new job.  

How Is Stress Different Than an Anxiety Disorder?

Just like stress, anxiety is also normal. Anxiety is often seen as resulting from stress (remember stress is pressure or tension). Anxiety can feel more intense and longer lasting than the typical stress response.  

Anxiety often changes how we think (thoughts), feel (emotions) and act (behaviors). There are often physical symptoms of anxiety including being unable to sit still or stop fidgeting. It can be difficult to relax or even feel comfortable. Many people may feel their heart racing or their muscles tense.

Anxiety can turn into an anxiety disorder for some children and adults. Anxiety disorders are very common. It is important to have a mental health or qualified health professional make the diagnosis and provide guidance and possible treatment. Typically, a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder is given when there are changes in certain areas of life including at school, work or even with friends.

Symptoms of anxiety disorders are different for each person and can change across the lifespan.

Basic symptoms include ongoing thoughts or worry about more than one thing such as family, friends, school, and/or (grades). People with anxiety are often described as perfectionistic or occasionally self-critical. Many feel worried about, or dread, big events before they happen. Some simply avoid events. Children may refuse to go to school or ask to come home early from a friend’s house. Children and adults often report some poor sleep. It can be hard to go to, and stay, asleep. It can be hard to concentrate or stay focused. Overall, anxiety can feel exhausting!

There are also many types of anxiety including general anxiety, social anxiety, and anxiety resulting from a trauma. 

What Is an Adjustment Disorder?

An adjustment disorder is a diagnosis that is made by a mental health or qualified medical professional. Adjustment disorders follow a major change or event that doesn’t always qualify as a trauma. Events like a big move, changing school, or even separation of parents could qualify as an event. However, not all children will met criteria for an adjustment disorder after these events.

Adjustment disorders are often considered a change from the person’s typical behaviors or emotional responses lasting for longer than a few days. Adjustment disorders have different presentations. For some children an adjustment disorder can present as an increase in behaviors. In other children it may cause more emotions or an increase in anxiety. Adjustment disorders are considered fluent meaning that they typically improve with treatment or support.

Similar to anxiety disorder, adjustment disorders are common and can impact several areas of life including home, school and friendships.

Big Lots Behavioral Health Services at Nationwide Children's Hospital
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Jessica Bailey
Jessica Bailey, PsyD
Psychiatry and Behavioral Health

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.