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  • Dr. Terri Bacow

3 Factors That Make People Vulnerable to Anxiety Disorders

The combination of information, modeling, and life experience can be a tipping point.

Anxiety is the number-one condition that is diagnosed by most psychologists and psychiatrists. It is incredibly common, and almost every single person that I work with in my therapy practice struggles with it.

Where does anxiety come from? Anxiety is neurobiological—it originates in our brains and bodies. Anxiety is also highly genetic—studies show that some people inherit a tendency to experience anxiety more intensely than others. This tendency runs in families and is not anyone's fault—you are born this way!

When life stress interacts with a biological predisposition to anxiety, instead of anxiety coming and going, it comes and stays. Psychologists call this the diathesis-stress model, and it explains why and how some people develop anxiety disorders.

Typically, there are three factors that contribute to developing problematic anxiety:

1. Observation

When we are genetically prone to anxiety, and then we observe others acting anxiously (such as parents, teachers, or friends who may also have anxiety), we learn from this and may begin to mimic it. In particular, research has identified the role of parental transmission of anxiety. Typically, when we witness one or both parents behaving anxiously, we may adopt those behaviors.

It is not uncommon for parents to model and display their own anxiety via anxious statements ("Be extremely careful when you go outside today!") as well as anxious behaviors (avoiding entering feared situations, such as parties, airplanes, and amusement parks). Children watch their parents exhibiting this anxiety and conclude this is the normal way to go about life. Some children will adopt the same tendencies—after all, we all look up to our parents and watch them for cues about how to feel and behave.

2. Information

The news and social media can be full of scary events; when we're bombarded with frightening news, it's easy to conclude that the world is dangerous, and we should be nervous about it. These days, there is, unfortunately, an overwhelming influx of such information. A typical scenario in which information primes a person to anxiety might be someone who is aware of the events of 9/11 or a school shooting and then becomes afraid of air travel or going to school.

It is perfectly understandable that if you receive information about scary news events, particularly if you receive this information on a consistent basis, it can make you anxious more often than not. Further, if you are genetically prone to anxiety due to your family history, you may be more sensitive and reactive to threatening information and pay more attention to it.

3. Experience

Almost everyone will experience some kind of anxiety-provoking life event (changing schools or a painful breakup, for example) or even a truly traumatic event (an assault or serious loss, for example) that can set off an anxious reaction of which it is hard to let go. Not everyone who witnesses traumatic events will become traumatized by them; in fact, only a portion of victims of trauma go on to develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) due to the protective role of resilience. Yet, adverse life experiences do affect all of us and shape the way we perceive and react to life events. If you have gone through difficult experiences, it may put you on guard, and you may be more likely to anxiously anticipate future challenges.

Any combination of the three factors mentioned above (observation, information, and experience) may increase your vulnerability to experiencing problematic anxiety to the degree that the anxiety interferes with your life.

Of note, these factors tend to pop up when one is young, which is why childhood and adolescence are peak moments for the onset of anxiety disorders. Anyone who has experienced some anxiety in childhood (and who hasn't?) is likely to find that the stresses of puberty, the teen years, or young adulthood can create a tipping point. Scientists report that anxiety increases significantly between the ages of 12 and 17—and that almost a third of adolescents ages 13 to 18 have an anxiety disorder.

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If you are an adult struggling with anxiety, reflect on your early experiences. Were one or both of your parents very anxious? Did you experience a great deal of stress? How old were you when you noticed that anxiety was getting in the way?

Understanding where anxiety comes from is an important step in feeling better. Due to the very subtle and ongoing nature of worrying thoughts, many of us just sit with our anxiety and suffer through it. Yet identifying, naming, and learning about anxiety can be empowering, and it is so important to reduce the ridiculous stigma associated with it. We are all human, and we are all products of our genes and our environment.

Portions of this post have been excerpted from my book, Goodbye, Anxiety: A Guided Journal for Overcoming Worry.

Blog as published in Psychology Today on 2/17/23.

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