Handspring Health
November 3, 2022
October 9, 2023

What Does Anxiety Feel Like for Children? Symptoms, Treatment, and Causes

Anxiety isn’t just an emotional experience—it can have intense physical manifestations as well. If you’ve experienced anxiety, you may be familiar with some of these distressing symptoms: sweating, racing heart, labored breathing, and upset stomach.Children who experience anxiety will have physical symptoms, too.

Anxiety isn’t just an emotional experience—it can have intense physical manifestations as well. If you’ve experienced anxiety, you may be familiar with some of these distressing symptoms: sweating, racing heart, labored breathing, and upset stomach.

Children who experience anxiety will have physical symptoms, too. Often, these symptoms will be the first signs a child is experiencing anxiety, before they are even able to identify the reason for their physical distress. In many cases, the physical symptoms of anxiety in children can be worrying to both kids and their parents, which only exacerbates the anxiety. 

Learning to manage anxiety means learning to recognize anxious feelings before they get out of control. Here, we’ll take a look at the different ways that anxiety can manifest in the body, how your child might experience anxiety, and how to manage and treat the symptoms.

What Does Anxiety Feel Like?

If you or your child are asking, exactly “what does anxiety feel like,” it can be helpful to learn more about how it’s activated in the body. When one encounters something that triggers anxiety, or even if you have an anxious thought, the autonomic nervous system—which regulates involuntary processes including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and digestion—gets revved up.

Your autonomic nervous system isn’t something that you control consciously, which is why sometimes the physical manifestations of anxiety show up without your child even being fully aware that they’re anxious. 

When your child is anxious, their body goes into its fight-or-flight response, which is what triggers the nervous system to be on high alert. Basically, the nervous system is telling your child’s body to get ready to run away from danger, even if actual danger isn’t present. No wonder anxiety can feel so intense!

What Does Anxiety Feel Like Physically?

Anxiety can be emotional, behavioral, physical, and can show up as distressing thoughts. 

Sometimes anxiety may manifest in unexpected ways, such as dissociation, where your child feels disconnected from their environment or themself, or in less common physical signs, like shaking, shivering, or feeling like they have the chills.

Here’s what to know about the different ways that anxiety can manifest:

For many children, however, the most notable symptoms of anxiety are physical—and some of these symptoms can be quite uncomfortable. 

Common physical signs of anxiety may include:

  • Rapid heart beat
  • Labored breathing
  • Tight chest/chest pressure
  • Feeling like they can’t breathe or are choking
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Feeling tired
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Sweating
  • Feeling nauseous or stomach ache and indigestion
  • Frequent headaches
  • Having diarrhea
  • Trembling
  • Feeling faint
  • Experiencing a dry mouth
  • Muscle or body tension and aches
  • Pacing, having trouble staying still

For children especially, anxiety can have physical manifestations. Some of these are easy to miss, though, and you might not realize that your child is experiencing anxiety. 

What Does Anxiety Stomach Pain Feel Like?

Ever had a kid tell you that they have a stomach ache and can’t go to school? Although stomach aches before school or other potentially stressful situations may sound like an excuse to stay home, children who experience anxiety often experience stomach pain. That’s because anxiety frequently goes right to the gut. 

You can blame the brain-gut connection for this anxiety stomach pain. When a child is feeling anxious and experiencing anxious thoughts, hormones and other chemicals that go directly into your digestive system are released. This can make the digestive system move too fast or too slow, and can even alter the gut microbiome and generally make everything wonky.

Anxiety can cause all kinds of digestive upsets, including:

  • Stomach pain and cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Changes in appetite
  • Nausea
  • IBS symptoms
  • Indigestion and heartburn 

What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like?

Anxiety can look different for different people. It can also vary based on the type of anxiety disorder. For example, those with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) may have anxious feelings on and off most days. Those with social anxiety may only have anxiety in social situations or when thinking about socializing. 

If your child has panic disorder, they may feel okay most of the time, and then have moments of extreme fear, referred to as panic attacks or, more colloquially, “anxiety attacks,” which is not a clinical term. But even kids without panic disorder may at times experience occasional panic attacks.

Panic attacks are characterized as sudden and unexpected periods of extreme fear and stress. There may be no clear and present danger, but your child will sure feel like there is. Panic attacks may feel like having a racing or thumping heart, suddenly sweating, shaking or trembling. It’s also common to feel a sense of dread or doom.

Though less common in children, kids are not immune from panic attacks. They are more common in teenagers than younger kids, but even little kids can get them. Panic attacks in kids share many of the same symptoms as those in adults—feelings of doom, pounding heartbeat, shortness of breath—but many children don’t realize they are having a panic attack. Their parents are often perplexed as well.

Panic attacks that become consistent can make it difficult for children to function. Children with panic attacks often end up avoiding the things that trigger their panic, and can lead to agoraphobia, separation anxiety, or social isolation. That’s why, if they are showing symptoms of panic attacks or panic disorder, it’s important to get your child diagnosed and treated.

Strategies For Managing Anxiety Symptoms and Sensations

Recognizing feelings of anxiety is one of the most important first steps in addressing anxiety. As uncomfortable and distressing as the physical manifestations of anxiety can be, they give you a head’s up that your child is experiencing anxiety. 

Teaching your child to recognize the signs of anxiety in their own body can be an asset to them as well. Once your child is able to recognize the signs, they may even be able to use techniques like deep breathing or visualization to stop anxiety attacks in their tracks.

Partnering with a therapist is also a great way to help your child manage their anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based method that can be used for helping both adults and children who have anxiety or anxiety disorders. In CBT, the therapist helps your child become more mindful of the thoughts and feelings they experience when anxious—including physical sensations. Then, various techniques are introduced to help manage those thoughts and feelings.

One component of CBT may be  exposure therapy, a method of exposing your child to their anxiety triggers in the safe and controlled space of therapy. Exposure therapy also introduces relaxation techniques to help manage anxiety.

While anxiety can be challenging, there are many effective ways to manage it so that your child can once more feel more like themself.

If you need further support or assistance in helping your child with their feelings of anxiety, you shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to start with a free consultation from a licensed Handspring Health therapist today, who can offer you and your child the tools and support to overcome these distressing symptoms.

Works Cited         

Academy of American Pediatrics. Help Your Child Manage Anxiety: Tips for Home & School.

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Frequently Asked Questions.

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Panic Disorder In Children And Adolescents.

Anxiety & Depression Association of America. How to Calm an Anxious Stomach: The Brain-Gut Connection.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Anxiety and Depression in Children.

Harvard Health. Recognizing and easing the physical symptoms of anxiety.

National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety Disorders.

National Library of Medicine. Anxiety.


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