Origins of Anxiety

Where does Anxiety come from?

Anxiety develops for a reason. It does not come out of nowhere.

There are three major factors which cause anxiety to develop. These are:

  1. Genetics – in other words the genetic tendencies that you have inherited from your parents.
  2. Parenting – the way that you were raised affects your tendency to develop anxiety.
  3. Traumatic events – these are dreadful events that just sometimes happen.

Medical research has shown that only a small number of those individuals who suffer and unexpected trauma, develop severe anxiety. This is because anxiety develops because of a combination of causes. In some people this is a combination of genetics and trauma. In others it may be a combination of parenting and trauma. In some individuals it may be a combination of all three factors. It is interesting that some people are pretty much immune to developing anxiety, but it is possible that they could experience a traumatic event or events which could challenge their ability to cope in ways that they have not anticipated.

If you are unlucky enough to have developed anxiety then it is helpful to think about which of the causes of anxiety have led to your symptoms.

Why does it matter identifying the causes of your anxiety?

In order to overcome your nervousness you do not have to understand where it came from. However the benefit of identifying the origins of your anxiety is that it helps you to understand that anxiety isn't something that you brought on yourself. Anxiety happens and develops for many good reasons which are expanded on on this website. The blame does not belong with the person with anxiety.

Feeling guilty and blaming yourself only tend to drain you of energy. Guilt and self-blame drain resources and direct your focus away from the efforts needed to deal with the anxiety. In contrast self-acceptance and self forgiveness will energise you and motivate your efforts to deal with your anxiety.

Genetic causes of anxiety.

If you suffer from anxiety, excessive worrying and tension, look around at your family members. Medical studies have found that of those who with an anxiety disorder, about a quarter of their relatives also have an anxiety disorder. So your Aunt Jane may not suffer from "nerves", but Uncle John or your sister Julie may.

Medical researchers have conducted studies on twins and siblings who live together to test the hypothesis that genetics does play an important role in how people deal with and experience anxiety. It was found, as predicted by the researchers, that identical (monozygotic) twins were far more similar to each other in terms of anxiety than siblings or fraternal (non-identical or dizygotic) twins. Even if you happen to inherit a genetic tendency towards anxiety, other factors, such as parenting, the environment, presence or absence of traumatic events and your peers, affect the chances of you developing and anxiety disorder.

Parenting – how you were brought up.

It is easy to blame your parents for all your problems and the way you are. Most parents try to do the best that they can. Bringing up children is a formidable task. So in the majority of cases,parents do not deserve as much blame as they tend to receive. However, your parents do hold responsibility for the way that you were brought up to the extent that it may have contributed to your anxiety.

Three parenting styles are thought, by psychologists, to lead to anxiety in children:

  • Over protective parents:

These parents protect and shield their children from all possible threats, stressors or harms. If their children trip or stumble, they grab them before they even hit the ground. When their children are upset, they fix the cause and any problems. It is therefore not surprising that their children do not learn how to cope with or tolerate anxiety, worries, fears or frustrations.

  • Over controlling parents:

This type of parent controls and micro-manages all their children’s activities. They manage and direct all details of their children's lives. For example they manage what they should wear, how they should play and how they solve school work problems. They discourage the development of independence and encourage dependency and anxiety.

  • Parents who respond inconsistently:

These parents provide their children with erratic limits and rules. One day, they respond with understanding when their kids have trouble with their school homework. But the following day, they explode with anger when their children request help. These children fail to learn the connection between their own efforts and a predictable outcome. Therefore, they feel that they have very little control over what happens in life. It is not surprising that they feel anxious and develop an anxiety disorder.

The World is to blame for my anxiety!

The world today moves at a faster speed than ever before, and the working week has gradually become longer and longer rather than shorter and shorter. Modern life for many people is filled with both dangers, risks and complexity. We think this is why psychologists and psychiatrists are seeing more and more people with anxiety-related problems and anxiety disorders than previously.

There are four specific types of events that may lead to a problem with anxiety, even in someone who has never suffered from anxiety before:

  • Unexpected threats:

A stable and predictable life help to prevent anxiety. A chaotic and uncertain life can lead to anxiety. For example, Michael has to work long hours to earn enough to live on. He lives from pay-day to pay-day and manages to save very little money. A car accident leaves him with a broken arm and he is unable to work for 2 months. He now worries constantly about his ability to pay his household bills. Even when he is able to get back to to work, he worries repeatedly and obsessively about the next financial disaster that is around the corner.

  • Increasing demands and responsibility:

Anxiety can be caused by having too much responsibility. Maxine at first thinks that there is nothing better than being promoted to a more responsible and demanding position. When her boss offers her a big promotion to lead and direct the new rapidly growing sales division at work she happily accepts. Maxine had never expected such a senior role or large pay packet at her young age, and this early in her career. With the new and demanding job come many new duties, expectations, responsibilities, challenges and much longer working hours. Maxine now starts to worry and fret. . What if she fails to meet the challenges of the new role? Worry starts taking over her life and eventually she is off work with an anxiety disorder.

  • Confidence killers:

Criticism and rejections which are unexpected, may lead to "nerves" and an anxiety disorder. Robert is on top of the world. He has an excellent, well paid, interesting job and feels excited about his approaching wedding. However, he is stunned when his bride to be suddenly calls off the engagement. Now, he worries obsessively and repeatedly that something is wrong with him. Maybe he will never have the life that he dreamed of and planned for.

  • Terrifying traumatic events:

None of us ask or want to live through a horrific or life-threatening event. Unfortunately, for a some of us, these dreadful events do take place. Horrendous accidents, natural disasters, acts of terrorism, pandemics, battlefield injuries, and violence have occurred for hundreds of years and probably always will. When they do occur, major problems with anxiety often result. Thus, survivors of major disasters often experience anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for many years afterwards, because of the totally unexpected nature of the episode.

Learning Self-Acceptance

Psychologists frequently see their anxious clients suffer from another unnecessary source of worry and suffering - self-criticism. Their clients anxiety is bad enough, but they often also become self-critical because they have become anxious. Such self-criticism involves harsh, critical judgements. If you are doing this then it is important to learn to be kind and compassionate to yourself and learn self-acceptance. This is an important step in recovering from an anxiety disorder.

Psychologists sometimes suggest the following approach to self-acceptance. Make a list of all the probable causes of your anxiety problems. 

First, think about possible family members who suffer from anxiety and consider the contribution their genes may have made. List these close family members and their genetic contributions. Then think about how your parents may have either caused anxiety or led you to develop anxiety in you because of their unpredictable or harsh way of parenting. Then recall and consider experiences in your life the distant to recent past that were highly anxiety-arousing. Then, after you have listed the probable causes and reasons for your anxiety and distress, ask yourself questions such as the ones that are listed next:

  • Has there been a time in my life that I wished to feel anxious?
  • Have I asked for my anxiety?
  • Am I mainly to blame for my anxieties?
  • How much (i.e. in percentage terms) can I objectively assign to myself as opposed to parenting, life events and genetics?
  • If one or several of my friends had problems with anxiety, what would I say to them?
  • Would I think they were to blame?
  • Would I think as badly of them as I do myself?
  • Does thinking critical thoughts about myself help me to get over my anxiety?
  • If I decided to being so self critical , would I have more energy for tackling my problems?

Going through these questions can help you develop self-acceptance and discover that having anxiety has nothing to do with your value or worth as a human being. Then you will hopefully learn to be more compassionate towards yourself . Psychologists and myself thoroughly recommend it.

Remember though that it is common and normal for people be hard on themselves at times. But persistent, long-term, unrelenting self-criticism is very destructive, energy sapping and anxiety provoking. If you truly find yourself unable to stop self-criticism and abuse then it is a good idea to seek professional help.