“All of us at anxietycentre.com have experienced debilitating anxiety. But we’ve also overcome it and returned to normal and lasting health. Because we know the hardship anxiety unwellness can cause, we are committed to helping others, with over 30 years of service.” - Jim Folk, President, anxietycentre.com

10 Environments That Contribute To The Development Of Anxiety Disorder

Jim Folk author
Written by: Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: May 21, 2020


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No one sets out to develop anxiety disorder and its symptoms. Issues with anxiety often develop early in life from situations and circumstances, most of which are beyond our control.

Therefore, it’s not our fault for struggling with anxiety issues. The environments we grow up in play a major role in why anxiety disorder develops.

Moreover, just because anxiety disorder isn’t caused by a biological, chemical, or genetic problem, that doesn’t mean we can instantly “snap out of it.”

Truth be known, most of us would rather forget about anxiety disorder and get on with life rather than struggle day after day with plaguing thoughts, intense fear, and debilitating symptoms.

Once anxiety disorder develops, it can affect every area of a person’s life, often causing significant lifestyle impairment. Some refer to it as an “anxiety prison.”

If anxiety disorder is not addressed early, it can affect the entire trajectory of a person’s life.

Fortunately, we can overcome issues with anxiety and go on to live an anxiety disorder-free life. But, it most often requires good information, professional therapy, and lots of work.

Too often, we’re asked, “Why did I develop issues with anxiety?”

To answer that question, here are 10 environments that contribute to the development of anxiety disorder. One is enough. Many of us have had combinations of environments. Is it any wonder why we have problems with anxiety?!

Abuse

Experiencing abuse (physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, or spiritual) when growing up is a common contributing factor to the development of anxiety disorder.[1][2] Children who are abused have their foundation of security and trust eroded.

Children who experience abuse when growing up fear people, places, situations, and circumstances because they have learned that something bad could happen at any moment, even by people they believe they should be able to trust. Living constantly on high alert for danger sets up the development of anxiety disorder.

The degree of developing an anxious approach to life is often proportional to the degree and frequency of abuse experienced.

It’s not that these victims of abuse want to be anxious and afraid all the time. However, their life experience has taught them that they need to be always on the lookout for danger so that they can protect themselves from the ever-present potential for harm.



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Overprotective Parenting

Overprotective parenting is shielding children from the challenges and hard knocks of life. Parents parent this way so that their children don’t have to suffer hardship when growing up. Parents often view this approach to parenting as “loving” their children.

Unfortunately, overprotective parenting robs children of early life opportunities to learn and develop healthy coping skills in the face of adversity.[3][4]

Children who lack healthy coping skills feel vulnerable to everyday challenges. Vulnerability makes children anxious.

That anxiousness carries throughout life unless healthy behavioral modification is made, usually through the assistance of professional therapy.

Overcritical Parenting

Overcritical parenting occurs when parents continuously criticize their children’s abilities and motives. Some parents believe being overly critical will “grow their children up and make them responsible.”

However, parents who are overly critical with their children cause their children to question not only their abilities but, more importantly, their entire self-worth.

Low confidence in their abilities and self-worth fuels low self-esteem, and also ingrains in them a sense of performance-based self-worth, which are common underlying factors that contribute to the development of anxiety issues.

Overcritical parenting is often associated with the development of anxiety disorder.[5][6]

Even though some parents think they are doing their children a favor by making them the best that they can be, this approach generally backfires. While the child might become more responsible, it often leads to becoming over-responsible and highly sensitive to criticism, also common underlying factors that contribute to overly anxious living.

Overindulgent Parenting

Overindulgent parenting is giving their children everything they want, and whenever they want it. Parents often raise their children this way out of love and not wanting their children to “suffer” by going without.

While some parents think this is a “loving” approach to parenting, it indirectly cripples their children. It also makes them helpless to help themselves, often referred to as “learned helplessness” – the inability to problem solve and make their own way in the world. This type of parenting style also makes children entitled: believing oneself to be inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment.

“Spoiled” is another term for entitled.

Children who come from this type of background often behave anxiously[7] because they feel incapable of standing on their own two feet. This inability makes them vulnerable to the fears of failing and not getting what they want in life.

Learned helplessness and a sense of entitlement are common underlying factors that contribute to the development of anxiety disorder.

Abandonment

Research has shown that children abandoned at an early age often struggle with anxiety issues (and depression).[8]

The desire for love and acceptance is one of the strongest desires in life. Feeling unloved and unaccepted takes a heavy toll on the person’s mental and emotional health.

It’s common for abandoned children to develop an intense fear of future abandonment, which often causes significant problems in their relationships.

Abandonment is a common contributing factor to the development of anxiety disorder.

Neglect

Humans were born for relationship and attachment. When a child is neglected, that innate desire is impaired.

Many mental health challenges stem from feeling unwanted and unloved.[1] The development of issues with anxiety is a common consequence of being neglected when growing up.

Neglect can be willful, such as when a parent distances himself/herself from the child, or when the parent neglects to provide the basics of life because of disinterest.

Neglect can also occur indirectly, such as when a parent works all the time and doesn’t spend meaningful time with the child, or when a parent is dealing with drug abuse.

No matter the cause, children who feel neglected when growing up often struggle with all kinds of issues, such as low self-esteem, trust issues, attachment issues, security issues, and relationship problems, to name a few.

These issues are also common contributing factors to the development of anxiety disorder.

Detached Parent

Detached parenting is characterized by a lack of involvement in the child’s life. Uninvolved parents place no demands on their children and are often apathetic toward their children, scornful, and completely lax.

Similar to neglect, a parent who detaches themselves from their children also causes issues with self-esteem, attachment, trust, and relationship problems.

Detachment can happen willfully, such as completely ignoring the child. It can also occur indirectly, such as being completely immersed in his or her own life with none to little attention paid to children.

A detached parent creates similar issues with feeling unwanted, unimportant, and unloved. These are also common contributing factors to the development of issues with anxiety.[1]

Early Life Trauma

Research shows that early life trauma is a common contributing factor to the development of mental illness, such as anxiety disorder.[1][2][9][10]

Early life trauma can come in many forms, such as being a victim of abuse, civil unrest or war, criminal activity, and witnessing a traumatic event.

Early life trauma teaches the child that dangerous things can happen at any moment, and some can be severe. These early life experiences leave the child feeling especially vulnerable, and at any time and anywhere.

If the child doesn’t receive early intervention, such as via therapy, this vulnerability often extends throughout adulthood.

Experiencing early life trauma is another common factor that contributes to the development of anxiety disorder.

A Parent With Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

Growing up with a narcissistic parent(s) significantly increases the chances of developing mental health problems, such as anxiety disorder.[11][12]

Narcissists – people who have a grandiose sense of self-importance, lack empathy, and desire admiration – leave their children psychologically and emotionally damaged in many ways.

For instance, children raised by narcissistic parents often have low self-esteem, lack confidence in many areas of life, feel unsafe, have their sense of trust eroded, often struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, feel abandoned, and are emotionally stunted, to name a few.

Many of these problems contribute to the development of anxiety disorder.

A Parent(s) Who Is A Worrier

Children learn a lot about behavior by watching how their parents behave. Many anxious people come from backgrounds where one or both parents were worriers.[13][14]

Since worry appeared to be a “normal” way of coping with the unknown, children adopt it as their default coping style, as well. The more their parents worried, the more their children learn that “worry” is a normal way to manage adversity and uncertainty.

In an online poll we conducted, 85 percent of respondents said that one or both of their parents were worriers.

Having a parent(s) who worried is a common contributing factor to the development of anxiety disorder.

These are just ten of the many, many contributing factors that set us up to struggle with anxiety issues.

To repeat, it’s not that we want to struggle with anxiety issues, but that many of our early life experiences contribute to coping with life in unhealthy, anxious ways.

Recovery Support members can learn more about the many other contributing factors to the development of anxiety disorder in Chapter 6.



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We also want to keep in mind that our parents weren’t trying to set us up for anxiety disorder. They parented the best they could based on what they knew at the time, and based on their mental and emotional health.

Often, mental health challenges pass from generation to generation because one generation learns how to parent from the previous one, and so on. Unhealthy behaviors get passed on and on until healthy behavioral change is made by someone in the generational line.

As such, we want to offer our parents grace, because in many cases, they parented similar to their parents.

Also, most of us have come from some type of challenging background. It’s rare to find a background that was completely healthy. So again, we want to offer grace and mercy, and work at making healthy behavioral change ourselves so that we can stop the generational transfer of unhealthy behavior.

If you are struggling with anxiety issues, working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to work through and overcome these factors. As you address these factors, your approach to life will become less anxious. A less anxious approach to life eliminates issues with anxiety disorder.

Again, while we can overcome issues with anxiety, it most often takes good information, professional help, and effort.

If you know a loved one who is struggling with anxiety issues, support them as they work their way to normal, anxiety disorder-free health. Your ongoing support and encouragement could be the very thing they need to work through their recovery and unburden themselves from unhealthy anxiety.

Last, if you recognize that you are parenting your children in one (or many) of the above ways, know that you could be contributing to the development of their issues with anxiety. Learning healthy parenting skills can prevent the transfer of unhealthy behavior. Of course, the sooner, the better.

Many of our recommended therapists help parents develop healthy parenting skills.

For more information:



The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.


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REFERENCES:

1. Bruce, Laura, et al. "Childhood Maltreatment and Social Anxiety Disorder: Implications for Symptom Severity and Response to Pharmacotherapy." Depression And Anxiety, Feb 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3314083/

2. Florida State University. "Invisible Scars: Verbal Abuse Triggers Adult Anxiety, Depression." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 May 2006. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/05/060522150701.htm

3. Spokas, Megan, and Heimberg, Richard. "Overprotective Parenting, Social Anxiety, and External Locus of Control: Cross-sectional and Longitudinal Relationships." Cognitive Therapy and Research, Dec 2009, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225326235_Overprotective_Parenting_Social_Anxiety_and_External_Locus_of_Control_Cross-sectional_and_Longitudinal_Relationships

4. McNamara, Damian. "Parental Control, Overprotection Associated With Anxiety in Children." MDedge Psychiatry, Oct 2006, https://www.mdedge.com/psychiatry/article/22595/pediatrics/parental-control-overprotection-associated-anxiety-children

5. Leib, R, et al. "Parental Psychopathology, Parenting Styles, and the Risk of Social Phobia in Offspring: A Prospective-Longitudinal Community Study." Archives of General Psychiatry,  Sep 2000, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10986549/

6. Knappe, Susanne, et al. "The Role of Parental Psychopathology and Family Environment for Social Phobia in the First Three Decades of Life." Depression and Anxiety, 2009, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18839408/

7. Wei, Chiaying, and Kendall, Philip. "Child Perceived Parenting Behavior: Childhood Anxiety and Related Symptoms." Child & Family Behavioral Therapy, Jan 2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4104716/

8. Black, Claudia, "Understanding the Pain of Abandonment." Psychology Today, Jun 2010, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-many-faces-addiction/201006/understanding-the-pain-abandonment

9. Kuo, Janice, et al. "Childhood Trauma and Current Psychological Functioning in Adults with Social Anxiety Disorder." Journal of Anxiety Disorder, May 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3074005/

10. Devi, Fiona, et al. "The prevalence of childhood trauma in psychiatric outpatients." Annals of General Psychiatry, 214 Aug 2019, https://annals-general-psychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12991-019-0239-1

11. Dentale, Francesco, et al. "Relationship between Parental Narcissism and Children’s Mental Vulnerability: Mediation Role of Rearing Style." International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 2015, https://www.ijpsy.com/volumen15/num3/420/relationship-between-parental-narcissism-EN.pdf

12. McBride, Karyl. "The Real Effect of Narcissistic Parenting on Children." Psychology Today,  19 Feb 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-legacy-distorted-love/201802/the-real-effect-narcissistic-parenting-children

13. Burstein, Marcy, and Ginsburg, Golda. "The Effect of Parental Modeling of Anxious Behaviors and Cognitions in School-Aged Children: An Experimental Pilot Study." Behavioral  Research and Therapy, June 2010, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0005796710000240?via%3Dihub

14. Eley, Thalia, et al. "The intergenerational transmission of anxiety: a children-of-twins study." King's College London, Apr 2015, https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/the-intergenerational-transmission-of-anxiety-a-childrenoftwins-study%28c58a9809-2518-433d-bc1b-45a84f548af5%29.html