Anxiety Disorders – Do We Pass Them On To Our Children?

As parents, we naturally worry about the future of our children. We strive to be the best parents possible, from providing them with adequate nutrition and education to ensuring that they receive proper medical treatment. We also worry about passing on health conditions such as anxiety disorders, to our children, which can sometimes become overwhelming because it is something that is totally out of our control.

Genetics, environment and lifestyle all play a role in determining an individual’s risk of developing an anxiety disorder. When the worry hits, however, it is important to remember that while we may not be able to directly prevent our children from inheriting certain mental health issues, we can still take steps to help lessen their vulnerability.

This includes providing a secure and nurturing environment for them, encouraging healthy habits such as physical activity and mindfulness practices, seeking professional help if necessary, and engaging in meaningful conversations with our children about their mental health.

What is an anxiety disorder?

An anxiety disorder is a serious mental illness that can cause feelings of unease, fear and distress. Anxiety disorders can manifest in different ways, and can range from mild or moderate to severe.

Common symptoms include excessive worrying, feeling on edge or stressed out, difficulty concentrating and focusing, insomnia or difficulty sleeping, irritability, fatigue, muscle tension and restlessness.

Anxiety disorders are relatively common, affecting around 20% of the population at some point in their lives. Some of the most common anxiety disorders include:

Generalized anxiety disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a type of anxiety disorder that causes people to worry about and feel anxious about almost anything and everything. People with GAD often struggle to identify the exact cause of their concern, making it difficult to manage or alleviate their distress.

Symptoms of GAD include excessive worrying, feeling on edge or stressed out most of the time, difficulty concentrating and focusing, insomnia or difficulty sleeping, irritability, fatigue, and muscle tension. People with GAD may also experience physical symptoms such as headaches, sweating, dizziness, hot flashes, nausea and stomachaches.

Social anxiety disorder

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) causes intense fear or anxiety in social situations. Individuals with SAD often worry excessively about the possibility of being embarrassed or judged by others in social settings.

Symptoms of SAD include feeling extremely self-conscious, avoiding eye contact, blushing or sweating profusely, shaking or trembling, experiencing difficulty speaking, and racing thoughts. Treatment for SAD typically involves cognitive behavioral therapy and/or medications such as antidepressants or anxiolytics.

Obsessive compulsive disorder

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) involves intrusive and repetitive thoughts, obsessions, and/or behaviors, known as compulsions. Individuals with OCD will often experience intrusive thoughts or images related to fear, aggression, and contamination.

In an attempt to relieve the distress associated with these thoughts or images, people with OCD may develop compulsive behaviors such as excessive hand washing or checking.

Panic disorder

Panic disorder is characterized by recurrent, unexpected panic attacks. Symptoms of these attacks may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating, shaking, dizziness or nausea. Panic disorder may also be accompanied by persistent fear and worry about future attacks, avoidance of situations that may trigger an attack and bodily sensations such as trembling or chills. Treatment for panic disorder typically involves cognitive-behavioral therapy and/or medication management.

Phobias

Phobias are intense, irrational fears of certain objects or situations. Common specific phobias include fear of animals, heights, blood, flying, or enclosed spaces.

People who suffer from a specific phobia may experience extreme anxiety when exposed to the feared object or situation and often go to great lengths to avoid it. Treatment for specific phobias can involve various forms of talk therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and/or medication management.

Anxiety Disorders – Nature or Nurture?

We have long known that there is a genetic element to anxiety disorders. If parents struggle with anxiety disorders, then their children are more likely to do so as well. However, it was generally assumed that this is due to the transmission of genes from one generation to the next – a concept commonly referred to as nature in the nature-nurture debate that seeks to identify the relative contributions of genes and environment to our overall development.

The Transmission of Anxiety Disorders from Parents to Children

In a cross-sectional study of 398 children from the general Canadian population, those who had same-sex parents with anxiety disorders were more likely to have one than children who had an opposite-sex parent with an anxiety disorder.

The findings suggest that the transmission of anxiety between generations goes beyond the purely genetic. The link found between anxiety disorders in children and anxiety disorders in the same-sex parent points to the importance of “nurture” in the development of anxiety. This raises the possibility that contextual elements, such modelling and vicarious learning, play a part in how anxiety is passed from parents to kids.

Reading this paper was devastating for me. I am the very anxious mother of a very anxious daughter, so it struck very close to home.

As parents, we want to protect our children from all harm, but sometimes there are things beyond our control. It is hard to know what to do when our children are suffering from something that we ourselves battle.

It is even harder when we start wondering whether their suffering is our fault – whether we could have spared them the struggles they are facing if only we had been better parents, better able to control our own anxieties and anxious reactions to what is happening around us.

This paper made me question whether I am doing more harm than good by trying to protect my daughter from my own anxieties. It made me worry that, in spite of my best efforts, I am inadvertently passing my anxiety on to her.

The phrase that kept echoing in my mind as I read this paper was self-compassion. I am sure that there were many times when my anxiety impacted my parenting, but I am also sure that I have always tried to do what is best for my daughter. Learning that there might be a link between my anxiety and hers does not change that. I am still the same person who loves her and is trying to do the best I can for her.

It is important to remember that we are not perfect, and that our children are not perfect either. We all have our struggles, and we all make mistakes. The best we can do is to show our children compassion – both for themselves and for us. In doing so, we may be able to help them find the compassion they need to face their own struggles.

How to get help if you or your child are struggling with an anxiety disorder

If you or your child are struggling with an anxiety disorder, the first step is to reach out for help. It is important to talk to a mental health professional to determine the best course of treatment. Your primary care physician can provide referrals to qualified professionals in your area and provide information about local mental health resources. Additionally, there are numerous online support groups and resources available that may be helpful.

It is important to remember that anxiety disorders are highly treatable and that recovery is possible. With the right help, individuals can learn healthy, effective ways to manage their anxiety. With patience and care, you and your child can develop the skills needed to cope with anxiety, reduce distress levels, and find relief.

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