I was asked recently whether childhood adversity can contribute to problems with anxiety in adulthood, so this blog will summarise my thoughts based on my clinical experience and knowledge from academic study. The short answer is yes. We know that adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s), such as household challenges, abuse, or neglect, can be a significant factor in the development of difficulties with both physical and psychological health in life. Research also shows that the higher number of ACE’s that an individual experiences, the more likely they are to go on and develop mental health problems such as depression later down the line.
When I studied for my CBT training, I remember a statistic that suggested that we are about 30% more likely to develop problems with anxiety if our biological parents had problems with anxiety. The other 70% was put down to environmental factors such as learning within society, whether that be at home, school, or other social settings. Please note, these figures may have changed since I did my training a few years ago!
Let’s explore the environmental components that could influence anxiety. If we grew up with an anxious caregiver, we could learn how to think and behave in an anxious way and this learning can stay with us way into adulthood. For example, if one of our parents held the belief that ‘if you think of the worst-case scenario, then everything else is a bonus,’ it is likely that at some point, whether directly or indirectly, we will pick up on that idea and start to believe it ourselves. The reason for this is that our children look up to us and respect us (not all the time admittedly!) and will model how we are as parents because that is what is modelled to them.
It makes sense in a world where things go wrong at different points, to try and protect ourselves from that reality by doing all we can to prepare for it. However, if you adopt that thinking style and apply it to lots, even all, areas of your life, it is likely that anxiety will start to become an issue for you at some point.
Our thinking is habitual and can become so subconsciously engrained. We know that our beliefs drive our behaviour, so unhelpful, catastrophic ideas like the example above can lead us to do all sorts of behaviours such as excessive planning and preparing before doing something new. These behaviours again make logical sense given the content of the belief, however, can go on to become a problem when we cannot go somewhere new or doing something without a comprehensive plan detailing all potential eventualities. The behaviours also serve to keep the anxious belief in place because we never learn whether something will go wrong or not if we continue to do lots of things to try and prevent bad things from happening. All of this can have quite an impact on friendships and relationships, especially if your loved ones do not hold the same belief and are therefore more spontaneous when doing things.
The good news is, we all hold both helpful and unhelpful beliefs based on our own experiences growing up, and the purpose of psychological therapy is to help you identify what beliefs you may have developed along the way and whether they are currently helping you or becoming more of a hinderance. After identifying the beliefs that are causing you problems, therapy can then help you try and change some of these to more realistic ones whilst supporting you to try and behave in accordance with this new belief. At the same time, therapy can help you to practice more helpful behaviours such as being more spontaneous and testing how the world really works, rather than how you have been conditioned to think it works from an early age.