Being Afraid

Have you ever been afraid? Everyone gets scared sometimes. Maybe thunder and lightning make your heart beat faster. Or maybe your mouth goes dry when your teacher announces a pop quiz, or your palms sweat when it's your turn to give your report in front of the class. Perhaps you get butterflies in your stomach when you see the bully who picks on you.

Everyday Worries

We all have fears from time to time. That's true no matter how big we are or brave we can be. Fear can even be good for you sometimes and even help you stay healthy. Fear of getting too close to a campfire may save you from a bad burn. And fear of getting a bad grade on a test might make you study more.

Being a bit on edge also can sharpen your senses and help you perform better in a recital or during a track meet. Some people even enjoy being a little scared. That's why they like to watch scary movies or go on roller-coaster rides.

What Happens When You're Scared?

Have you ever wondered why being scared makes your heart beat faster and makes you breathe quicker? The body's reaction to fear is called the "fight or flight" response. And people have had it since the beginning of time.

Here's how it works. Imagine you're a caveman or cavewoman living 100,000 years ago — and you come face to face with a hungry saber-toothed tiger. You have two choices: 1) Run for it (that's flight), or 2) pick up your club and battle the tiger (that's fight). A final choice (be eaten) doesn't seem like such a good one!

Today, you can apply fight or flight to that bully who confronts you and won't listen to reason. You have two choices: 1) Turn and walk away (flight), or 2) fight, even though you know fighting won't solve the problem.

To prepare for fight or flight, you body does a number of things automatically so it's ready for quick action or a quick escape. Your heart rate increases to pump more blood to your muscles and brain. Your lungs take in air faster to supply your body with oxygen. The pupils in your eyes get larger to see better. And your digestive and urinary systems slow down for the moment so you can concentrate on more important things.

What Is Anxiety?

Usually, our bodies go into fight or flight only when there is something to fear. However, sometimes this occurs when there doesn't seem to be anything to be frightened about. When you feel scared but there doesn't seem to be a clear reason, that's called anxiety (say: ang-zye-uh-tee).

Other feelings might come along with anxiety — like a feeling of tightness in your chest, a bellyache, dizziness, or a sense that something horrible is going to happen. These feelings can be very frightening. Sometimes anxiety can interfere with things you need to do, like learning and sleeping.

For some kids, feelings of anxiety or worry can happen anytime. For others, they might occur only at certain times, like when they're leaving their home or family to go somewhere. In some people, this feeling of anxiety occurs almost all the time and gets in the way of doing what they want to do.

Some kids may have a phobia (say: foe-bee-uh), which is an intense fear of something specific, such as being up high, getting dirty, the number 13, or spiders.

Why Do People Have Anxiety?

Anxiety can run in families. Or a person might develop anxiety after something terrible happens, like a car crash. Sometimes certain medical illnesses can cause feelings of anxiety. So can abusing alcohol or other drugs, like cocaine.

Another part of the explanation has to do with the different chemicals in the nerve cells of the brain. How the chemicals in our brain's nerve cells are balanced can affect how we feel and act. One of these chemicals is serotonin (say: sir-uh-toe-nun). Serotonin is one of the brain chemicals that helps send information from one brain nerve cell to another. But for some people with anxiety, this brain chemical system doesn't always seem to work the way it should.

Also, some scientists think that a special area in the brain controls the fight or flight response. With anxiety, it's like having the fight or flight response stuck in the ON position — even when there is no real danger. That makes it hard to focus on everyday things.

Dealing With Anxiety

Anxiety can be treated successfully. Tell your mom or dad if find yourself more scared than you feel you should be or if your anxiety becomes strong and is getting in the way of what you want or need to do.

Your parents might take you to a doctor, who can help find out if a medical problem is making you feel anxious, or to a therapist, who can help find a way to lessen the anxiety through talking, activities, relaxation exercises, or medication (or a combination of these things).

Of course, if you do come face to face with a hungry saber-toothed tiger, there's just one thing you should do . . . RUN!

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: January 2011

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

© 1995-2014 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.