Anxiety is rampant in our 21st century lives and is the number one mental health issue in the US. Everyone is anxious at times and many of us experience constant feelings of anxiety, worry or dread. What is the difference between normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder? How does an anxiety disorder develop? And what can you do if you believe you or a family member has an anxiety disorder?
First of all, we don’t understand why some people develop anxiety disorders while others don’t. We do know that there are a number of risk factors that are believed to contribute to the development of an anxiety disorder. There is strong evidence that common genetic factors, when combined with certain environmental stimuli, are conducive to producing anxiety disorders.
Anxiety is Influenced by Genetics
Two of the most common innate characteristics present in an individual susceptible to developing an anxiety disorder are above-average intelligence and heightened sensitivity to your surroundings. A certain percentage of children have an inborn disposition referred to as “behaviorally inhibited” (based on work by Dr. Lewis Kagan). These children are less likely to explore their environments and are more easily aroused by environmental “threats”.
Anxiety is Influenced by Your Environment
The environment you’re raised in may contribute to the development of anxiety; not just your home but your school and community can contribute. Some of the elements which may contribute to an anxiety disorder include:
- Approval is performance-based
- Your feelings are disregarded or discounted
- A critical or pressurized environment
- Alcohol abuse or other substance abuse/addictions in the family
- A parent with an anxiety disorder (also could be a genetic factor)
- Many rules in the home
- Big or significant secrets in the home
- Kids who feel they have to take care of their parents or the family in some way
- Pressure to be perfect
- Fear of separation or insecurity
- A tendency to portray the family or individual as better than others
- Messages which make the child feel as though she is crazy
Generally, several of these background factors are present in creating an anxious environment. The sensitive individual picks up and internalizes these environmental cues, which creates the need to respond and cope. Stress usually plays a role as well. Living in a world where we are bombarded on TV and the internet with frightening events only adds to the atmosphere of anxiety.
Next time, I’ll talk about what these response and coping mechanisms look like.