This is Part 2 of my series of articles on anxiety.
First, let me give you an example.
Let's say you bought a fancy new car and installed a sophisticated alarm system, that you take great pride in, to protect it from thieves. The only problem is that it goes off when the neighborhood kids play too close to it. And when your cat climbs on the hood. And when there is a gust of wind. And for no apparent reason several times at night. You get the idea.
So, what is the solution? Would you like to uninstall the alarm? Probably not, right? You love your new car and want to protect it. The alarm is not the problem. The problem is that the alarm is overly sensitive and responds to innocent triggers as if someone is trying to break into the car. Your state-of-the-art alarm just needs to be fine-tuned.
In the same way, the anxiety itself is not the problem. It only becomes a problem when you see danger where there is no real danger.
It's the perception of something neutral or ambiguous as dangerous that is keeping you on your toes. Similarly to the alarm, this perception needs to be fine-tuned.
But why, doctor? WHY?
For some reason, we all love to spend a lot of energy trying to understand why. I often find myself wondering, Why is that?
I think it stems from two faulty beliefs:
1) There must be an identifiable root cause for every problem that we experience.
2) If we find that root cause, then we will know how to resolve the problem.
(Those of you texting your ex obsessively after he broke up with you and asking, But why? Why? will know what I mean here).
I am not saying that finding the answers is always impossible or unhelpful. It's just that if you have spent a great deal of time searching and it hasn't been productive, maybe it's time to move from the ruminative question, "Why," to an action-oriented question, "How."
(To learn more about the dangerous tendency to ask "Why" excessively and how to overcome it, please click here)
Parents are especially prone to entertaining theories about what may have caused their child to be anxious (for example, moving him into a separate bed too early, bottle-feeding him, or teaching (or not teaching) him to write in cursive.) Interestingly, they often prefer spending a lot of their time in therapy confiding their fears, as opposed to rolling their sleeves and starting addressing the situation. Which, as a parent, I totally get.
Having said that, let's discuss
The Main Potential Causes of Being Overly-Anxious
(while keeping in mind that we may never really know, which is fine, as long as we address the anxiety anyway).
Both genetic factors and environment play a role in the development of anxiety disorders.
It is well-known that anxiety disorders run in families.
Environmental stressors also make their contribution.
To better understand the complex interplay between those two factors, consider this: A person genetically predisposed to anxiety may not develop an anxiety disorder if she never encounters a significant enough stressor or trauma. On the other hand, only some people who are exposed to very stressful event(s) will develop an anxiety disorder.
To make matters even more complicated, a parent who is herself anxious not only transmits her genes to her children, but often has an anxious parenting style, thus inadvertently modeling and reinforcing the anxious perception and behavior of the already vulnerable child. A parent can do it either directly (crossing to the other side of a street when encountering a dog) or indirectly (constantly warning the child of the endless dangers of the world).
Basically, your mom or dad may have taught you to worry!
Anna Prudovski is a Psychologist and the Clinical Director of Turning Point Psychological Services. She has a special interest in treating anxiety disorders and OCD, as well as working with parents.
Anna lives with her husband and children in Vaughan, Ontario. When she is not treating patients, supervising clinicians, teaching CBT, and attending professional workshops, Anna enjoys practicing yoga, going on hikes with her family, traveling, studying Ayurveda, and spending time with friends. Her favorite pastime is reading.