Anxiety and Family-of-Origin. The Connection + 3 Tips!

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You’ve come to realize that you have some levels of anxiety. High, low, medium or moderate. It may be the tingling feeling on your skin, the “on-edge” sensation when faced with a new scenario or the underlying hum of discomfort when trying to resolve a dilemma or disagreement. The thoughts that spiral you into a puddle of doubt and keep you there for a while. “What’s wrong with me” you wonder? A quick search online or a chat with your neighbor, friend or therapist lets you know it’s something called anxiety.

Where does anxiety come from and why are some people more susceptible to it than others?

{If you’re wanting some quick tips to lessen your anxiety, click here. }

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The research on anxiety and its relationship to environmental versus genetic factors is not crystal clear, however, there is some data that explains how an anxious temperament may indeed be “inherited” or not.

Where does anxiety come from?

Environment:

There are many environmental factors related to developing anxiety as an adult. High stress jobs, difficult living environment, struggling academically, change in income, end of relationship, natural disaster, car accident, change in friendship circle, chaotic relationships, experiencing a loss or going through a trauma. However, there are also biological, genetic components that are at play as well.

Genetics:

Genetics is the study of how we inherit traits from parents to children. Traits such as hair color, eye color, and risks for disease.

As well, we genetically inherit character traits, tendencies, behaviors, predispositions and body language from our families, and this holds true when it comes to anxiety as well.

Research from the Department of Psychiatry and the Health Emotions Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison administered a study to 600 monkeys from a multi-generational family. The research proved that overactive brain circuits are related to anxiety disorders; and that exact overactivity in the brain was passed down from one generation to the next. Meaning, there’s a strong genetic “inheritance”.

When it comes to mental health genetics, there are often unspoken facts that are hiding beneath the surface.

You may want to take a moment and as an adult, think about if a family member or parent had some form of anxiety disorder such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder {GAD}, Panic Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder {OCD}, Agoraphobia or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Uncovering family history can be helpful as you find you way to anxiety relief.

Many times, parents never got a formal diagnosis so it isn’t something that would pop out at you. However, many adults begin to understand and recognize that “mom’s crazy moods” or “ dads constant irritability” were related to mental health struggles and how it’s impacted their own mental health in their younger years, as well as their current adult self.

Some examples of messages you got as a child in an anxious home environment or if you were surrounded by extended family or friends who had anxiety are:

  • You think “worst case scenario” when thinking about possibilities or options

  • You experience life as a constricting experience- and wonder why some others have lightness to their step and your gait feels more dreadful and overly cautious

  • You assume that others are not to be trusted

  • Life is unpredictable and you need to be on the lookout for the next bad thing to happen

  • You do your best to stay in control (or be perfectionistic) so you don’t get hurt

  • You learn to “Rather be safe than sorry, so don’t take risks, stick to the beaten path and avoid risks.”

  • Mistrust of certain cultures, genders or individuals in specific positions of power. For example: “Men are all out there to hurt you” “People in leadership are harsh and cruel, keep a thick wall up when engaging” “People from XYZ are deceitful and manipulative, watch your back when doing business or befriending them”.

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These implicit messages are often at the underpinnings of discomfort, panic and anxiety that brings people in for therapy.

Some people reach out because they realize they are copying behaviors from their parents or extended family that aren’t healthy. Others may notice worries in relationships such as, “I feel fearful and mistrustful and can’t feel safe with anyone, not even people who I love deeply”, or “I don’t think I can ask for that raise because I can’t tolerate getting a no.”

Anxiety like this can be frustrating! It’s incredibly difficult to deepen friendships, experience real intimacy in love relationships, stay connected and confident in your parenting, or challenge yourself professionally when doubt hangs around your mind and body.

There's a story that began way before you. What's in the history of stress or trauma in the family?

There may have been family stressors in the past that impacted you in your developing years. For example, grandpa had to work late hours to bring in money and grandma was overwhelmed care-taking for mom, so your mom had a hard time being patient with you when you needed her, and therefore you've got some anxious tendencies. There may also be more outright past traumas that lie beneath the anxiety.

Your mom or dad’s trauma impact you and your anxiety development.

If mom has a history of sexual trauma, she may repeatedly warn you about the dangers of dating, intending to protect you, but may be doing the exact opposite and instilling fear. If mom resolved her trauma, she’d be able to engage more calmly in an educational, supportive conversation about safe dating and ways to set healthy boundaries, conveying to you that you can always confide in her should something go wrong.

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If dad was badly hurt and ostracized by his social group due to a choice he made, he may be curt with you when you consult with him about setting boundaries with friends. He may tell you to do whatever will keep your friends happy; although this is not good fatherly advice, his intent is to protect you from what he went through. His old traumas (though unknown to you) may also play itself out in moody behaviors and short tempered interactions which do not provide the safety you’re desperately needing.

These emotional dynamics play a role in how we develop as people, and how we learn to regulate our emotions.

Sometimes, parents are in denial, have limited resources or feel shamed for having had mental health issues they didn’t resolve and are not able to be of help to you when you’re seeking information. Even if there’s an unspoken conversation, if you know your parent has OCD-like tendencies, perfectionism (obsessive compulsive personality disorder) or some other anxiety disorder, trust your sense.

The exact diagnosis is not the priority, rather, it’s making sense of your story of anxiety, and how you’ll begin shifting out of it, with less confusion for yourself and your family onward.

Reading this and thinking you’ve “inherited” the anxious gene? Don’t fret!

Anxious energy can be channeled towards creation and change. I invite you to take this knowledge towards healing and transformation for yourself and the next generations to come.

How to do this? Start small.

3 tips to promote healing for the family.

First:

Take a deep breath right now. Information that you’re processing takes mental energy, and we want to be sure you’re replenishing the oxygen in your brain. You may want to come up with a sentence to give a narrative to your family-of-origin and how it’s impacted you and your mental health. Giving a voice, a sentence and an understanding to how your family-of-origin has impacted your sensitivity to anxiety can provide a sense of clarity and relief. When you have a clear narrative, your family picks up on the clarity, knowledge and understanding you have about yourself. When there’s a blurry picture of your history, it impacts the entire family system. Clarity is the first step to health and emotional stability.

Second:

By being an open, honest and knowledgable person, you are providing a safe space for those in your family to share. You can be the one in the family who lets everyone know that "It’s ok to have big feelings, some families have bigger expressions than others, and some kids, teens and adults, have bigger or more sensitive emotions than others. It’s all ok, and you’re not crazy.

Third:

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Speak openly about self care and the importance of prioritizing daily activities, exercises and resources to care for your mind and body. You can share about how your morning meditation, afternoon prayer, monthly meeting with your mentor or weekly therapy session keeps you grounded, supported and focused. You may share about a sport you’ve taken on, an art class you’re thinking of joining or how you’re expanding your social group to add more supports to your life right now.

By doing your healing work, you model ways to cultivate emotional resilience.

Verbally share when you’re engaging in calming techniques: “I’m taking a hot bath because it helps me calm down and unwind.” “I am taking five deep breaths because I need to slow down so I can listen to you and understand you better.” “I decorated my house with warm family portraits, paintings, scented candles, natural oils and/or warm fuzzy pillows because that makes my home a secure space from the outside noise. I made my home a warm cozy space so I can relax after a long day”.

Whatever your “things” are, be open and model for others the ways in which they can feel empowered and capable to care for themselves instead of feeling sorry and pitiful about their sensitivities. You get to share a powerfully healthy attitude that offers hope and possibility for your kids and future generations.

You are the doorway to how your children see and experience the world.

You can be the one who opens the door with ease and says “welcome to this adventure called life. It may not be easy, but there are moments of joy that are sweeter than sugar, and I want you to enjoy them. And, if you ever need anything, I’m always open to chat”.

Remember, you, as an adult today, possess an incredible power.

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You can be part of the shifting the shame, ignorance and confusion of mental health sensitivities in the family to clarity, direction and skills for confident living.

Doing this, you are shifting the narrative of how your family relates to struggles, and provides a more flexible approach to navigating stressors of daily living.

Doing this work can take time. You may want to reach out to a therapist to help you shift the perspectives you were raised with, and you may need to practice ways of being that feel foreign. It’s called “unlearning” and “relearning”, but thankfully, our brains have something called “neuroplasticity” which means that we can shift the ways our brain is wired, by practice and consistent work healing work.

Ready to live with more expansiveness, acceptance and freedom?

Take one step today to challenging a pattern that is causing you anxiety. If you’re reading this blog and are already engaged in this work, hats off to you. It’s hard work, but worth every bit of energy. If you’ve read this article and are seeking a therapist to be by your side and support you one-on-one? Reach out today, we can help you!

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At integrative Psychotherapy we are passionate about helping adults reduce anxiety and find a way of living, loving and being that promotes joy and connection.

Our therapists use science based methods and modalities such as psychodynamic psychotherapy, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (somatic), Expressive Arts and Parts work (Ego State Work) to help clients feel relief that last way beyond their time on the therapy couch.

Help is one click away!

Reach out here for your free 15 minute consultation and to book your first appointment.