Are You at Risk for an Anxiety Disorder?

Posted on January 7th, 2014
Posted in Mental Health

Are You at Risk for an Anxiety Disorder?Anxiety disorders impact millions of people at some point during their lifetimes.  From excessive worry to extreme avoidance of certain types of social situations, anxiety is distressing and can even be debilitating.  It negatively impacts relationships, damages or derails careers, and often causes self-confidence to plummet.  It can make what should be a happy life feel like a living hell.

Some individuals are definitely more vulnerable to developing an anxiety disorder than others, although whether or not that occurs is not something that can be predicted accurately.  However, experts have found that there are several factors that seem to notably increase your risk.

You’re a woman – Unfair though it may be, the harsh reality is that women tend to be twice as likely as men to develop an anxiety disorder – with the exception of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder).  While it’s difficult to determine exactly why this is, it’s likely due to a combination of things.  Women, especially those who are mothers, are often shouldering significant burdens in the sense that they’re expected to take care of everyone else – and at the neglect of their own needs.  That’s a tremendous weight to carry and can lend itself to a variety of fears.

Hormonal factors may also make women more susceptible to anxiety. For example, post-menopausal women have a greater risk for developing panic disorder.

Another reason for this major imbalance between the sexes is that women are much more likely to seek help for anxiety.  Men are socialized to regard anxiety and fear as a weakness; as a result, they’re much less likely to admit that they’re feeling anxious, let alone talk to their doctor or enlist the help of a therapist.  So, this may skew statistics to a fair degree.

You’re a minor – It’s no surprise that with age and life experience, we tend to gain perspective and – generally – be less fearful.   For example, as children, it didn’t take much to scare us. Imaginary monsters lurked under the bed, and the dark was especially ominous.  Those types of fears generally dissipated as we got a little older.

When it comes to risk of anxiety, children are most vulnerable to developing separation anxiety, OCD, and specific phobias (e.g. a fear of dogs or water).  Teens have a greater risk of developing panic disorder and social phobia. Granted, anxiety disorders that start in childhood or adolescence can continue for many years – or even throughout life.  If they’re not treated, they increase the risk of additional problems including drug and alcohol problems or depression.

You’ve experienced something traumatic – A traumatic event increases everyone’s risk of developing an anxiety disorder, especially Acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  The risk is even greater if other risk factors were already present when the trauma occurred.  Phobias may also develop following a trauma. For example, someone who was in a very serious car accident may develop a phobia of driving.

Trauma makes you more vulnerable to anxiety because it shatters your sense of safety.  Life no longer feels predictable, and any sense of stability or security can seem very foreign for some time.

You have certain personality traits – Children who are shy or have a hard time handling uncertainty are more vulnerable to developing an anxiety disorder in adolescence or adulthood.  The latter are much more likely to struggle with worry, especially as they realize that there are so many things in life over which we simply have no control.  

Other personality traits that increase anxiety risk include having an anxious personality as a child, being passive, and being reluctant to try out new things.  The latter two traits make you particularly prone to developing panic disorders at some  point.  People who are overly analytical can also struggle with anxiety, particularly OCD, due to their tendency to obsess about things rather than let them go.

You have a family history of anxiety –  Many psychiatric disorders tend to run in families – and anxiety disorders are no exception.  While it would be easy to assume that this is due to genetics, it’s more likely to be due to learned behavior.  For example, if you grew up with an anxious mother, then you may have learned to be fearful as well.  Children keenly observe how their parents respond to various events; if the response was often a fearful one, the child learns to be fearful.   On the flip side, resilience and the ability to step back and keep things in perspective are also traits children can learn from their parents – both of which help keep anxiety at bay.    

If you have a first degree relative (i.e. a parent or sibling) with panic disorder, you have a significantly higher risk of developing the disorder as well.

Your parents were overprotective – Overprotective parents essentially teach their children that the world is a very unsafe place, making them more vulnerable to developing anxiety at some point in their life.  By being too protective, and limiting their children’s exposure so significantly, they don’t let their children venture out on their own and learn to rely on their own strengths and judgment.

You have a sleep disorder – Insomnia makes individuals who’ve experienced a trauma more vulnerable to developing PTSD following a traumatic event.  If you have sleep apnea, you may have a heightened risk of developing panic disorder. 

You have a medical issue – Certain health issues can increase your risk of panic disorder. These include IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), chronic fatigue syndrome, migraine headaches, and PMS (premenstrual syndrome) to name a few.  Additionally, some medications can trigger symptoms of anxiety. 

You’re lack social support or feel disconnected – A strong sense of community can play an important role in keeping anxiety at bay.  Social connections increase our sense of safety and stability, and also provide essential support.  It’s much easier to push anxious thoughts out of your mind when you know there are people who care and have your best interests at heart.  When you’re isolated, however, it’s easier to perceive the world around you as a hostile or threatening one.

Risk factors don’t mean that you will develop an anxiety disorder, but they do give you valuable information.  If you have a family history of anxiety or have other risk factors listed above, pay attention if you find yourself feeling anxious. Anxiety disorders often respond well to proper treatment, so don’t hesitate to seek help if symptoms begin to appear.  The best treatment for anxiety is therapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy.

If you know you’re vulnerable to developing anxiety, you can also make lifestyle changes to reduce your risk.  For example, practicing yoga, meditating and exercising regularly are all good ways to reduce stress and lessen your risk of anxiety.  They’re also very helpful if you already suffer from anxiety.  You can also learn relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, to help you relax and stay calm.

Whatever you do, don’t let pride get in the way of reaching out for help if you do struggle with anxiety.  While some degree of stress is normal, anxiety disorders are not.  You can learn to manage them and even overcome them with proper treatment.

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