Are you often stressed out? Do you worry most of the time? When the problems you were worrying about are solved, do new problems pop up? Is it hard to remember the last time you felt at peace? If so, you are not alone. Many people find themselves in a near-constant state of anxiety, sometimes for as far back as they can remember.
Why is this? Why are certain people anxiety-prone and others not? There isn’t a single answer, but recent research has shed light on how anxiety can develop. Read on and see whether any of these scenarios ring true for you.
Anxiety Can Develop from High Stress Experiences
High stress and trauma cause anxiety. When a threat causes us to be highly stressed or traumatized, our bodies react to protect us by mobilizing our fight or flight response. This response elevates our heart rate, quickens our breath, and shuts down non-critical biological systems, among other things. When the threat passes, our bodies typically return to normal. But when the threat is overwhelming or ongoing, our bodies stay in this state or easily revert to it. A state of anxiety becomes the status quo.
To understand how this can happen, imagine that a boy is riding his bike on the sidewalk when he’s struck by a car turning into a driveway. His mother blames him for the accident because he was supposed to be at school. In her anger, she doesn’t give credence to his complaints of stomach pain until he becomes unresponsive. In the emergency room, doctors discover that he has serious internal injuries, which result in surgery and a long hospital stay. Years later, he still becomes anxious anytime he sees a bicyclist or drives by a hospital. He is nervous walking on sidewalks. He tends to worry that every ache and pain portends a catastrophic diagnosis that will require surgery.
Why does this boy’s accident result in life-long worry when other children who have had bicycle accidents go on to lead relatively anxiety-free lives? In this case, our boy wasn’t able to recover from the traumatic experience. After his accident, he wasn’t comforted, but instead was blamed, and then surgery – always a traumatic experience for the body – and an extended hospital stay compounded his distress. The result is that his body continues to react as if bicycles, sidewalks, and hospitals are threats.
Have you had a traumatic experience from which you never quite recovered? If so, this may be causing or at least contributing to your anxiety.
Some People are Born Anxious
Scientists have discovered that stressed parents can pass on their stress reactions to their offspring. This is believed to occur through a process called epigenetics where the expression of certain genes is triggered by experience. For instance, in a Canadian study, stress on mothers during pregnancy impacted preterm birth for two generations. In a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, fathers’ stress impacted the brain development of their children. And in a third study, the traumatic conditioning of fathers was passed down for two generations.
You can understand how this mechanism can be helpful for the survival of the species if you consider the example cited in the documentary My Life as a Turkey (available on PBS.org). When a farmer becomes the “mother” to a clutch of wild turkeys, he discovers during their first walk in the woods that they already know that certain snakes are dangerous and certain plants are poisonous – life-saving information they didn’t have to learn but inherited from their forebearers.
But for humans, having parents who were anxious because of their experiences or even because of their grandparents’ experiences is not helpful if it’s not adaptive. For instance, if your grandmother had a difficult birth experience, carrying that stress doesn’t make your life safer or easier.
Was either of your parents a worrier? Were your grandparents overly anxious? Did your ancestors endure highly traumatic events? If so, they may have passed down their anxious tendencies to you.
Thoughts Feed Anxiety, Anxiety Feeds Thoughts
The anxiety state works in tandem with our thoughts. When we think we’re in danger, our bodies respond with the anxiety state: elevated heart rate; fast, shallow breaths; and shutdown of non-critical systems such as higher-level thinking and digestion. And when our bodies enter the anxiety state, we think we’re in danger. Because of this, our thoughts often invoke this state when there is no actual danger. And our bodies, because of conditioning from past experiences (our own and/or our ancestors’), may signal danger when we’re perfectly safe. When our bodies and thoughts are feeding anxiety to each other, it becomes an endless cycle in which solving one problem simply leads to finding something new to worry about.
Do you find yourself caught in this cycle? Do you feel high-strung, unable to calm your mind or your body? You may be inadvertently feeding your anxious state.
I Get Why I’m Anxious … Now What?
Understanding the genesis of anxiety can provide some relief – just because you’re anxious doesn’t mean you’re crazy or defective … or alone. Your anxiety is a natural reaction to experience: yours, your ancestors’, or both. And there are many people in the same boat.
However, this doesn’t mean you’re predestined to a lifetime of worry. You can learn to manage your anxiety and construct a more calm and peaceful life. Begin by noticing your thoughts and feelings and intervening when you realize that they don’t match the situation. Read the article, Five Tools for Taming Anxiety. Research other anxiety management techniques. Practice yoga. Meditate. Seek trauma treatment with a qualified professional who can help you address the underlying causes of your anxiety. An anxious legacy doesn’t have to be a life sentence; you have the power to create the life you want.
Alexandria Hayes is a therapist with The Labyrinth Institute specializing in the treatment of trauma. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-588-3639.
 BioMed Central. (2014, August 7). Stress during pregnancy can be passed down through generations, rat study shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 19, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140807105436.htm
 University of Pennsylvania. (2015, October 19). Stressed dads affect offspring brain development through sperm microRNA. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 19, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/10/151019154111.htm
 Dias, B. G., & Ressler, K. J. (2014). Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations. Nat Neurosci, 17(1), 89–96. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nn.3594