The Birth of Anxiety

Unhappy woman hugging selfWhen I am asked about anxiety and where it comes from, I remind people that it is so important to look into one’s past to see how past events can play a role as well. Things that may have happened years before can definitely lead to present (and future) issues, as well as leave us to doubt our ability at times ( a la “will I truly be able to manage these new tasks at work,” or “will people really be there for me as my relationships have not gone the way I have wanted. I’m not so sure”). This uncertainty can create a great deal of anxiety and doubt.

Psychologist Charles Bentley eloquently describes how adult anxiety begins very early in our development. According to Bentley, during the first year of life, all we can do for ourselves is breathe; as babies, we have to depend on others to fulfill all of our other needs. Although we gradually learn how to act for ourselves, physical development is slow. Finally in puberty, our mental and motor skills are developed enough that we can begin to attend to our own basic needs.

For at least the first 15 years, our overriding need is to be loved, according to Bentley. Withdrawal of affection implies that none of our other needs will be met. Every child instinctively senses this threat to its survival, and these feelings form the foundation on which adult feelings of panic and insecurity can be built. When a child does not experience unconditional love, the child will spend enormous amounts of energy creating a personality structure that can protect parts of itself that might be perceived as unacceptable.

The Power of the Past
Even when we are little and our brains are not fully developed, every cell in our body has a memory. Painful instances that we may not fully (or readily) remember can indeed create chaos for us. Not having that love and support early on in life is certainly going to leave many a child confused and left to wonder about the world that is out there.

Now, even with the love and support of parents, other traumas will arise. Some examples may include a major illness possibly involving being hospitalized and surgery. Serious injuries are also likely to leave emotional scars as well, whether we experience these ourselves or witness it (like a car accident or shooting). Some of these situations trigger a posttraumatic stress episode, although less serious situations can also create anxiety in us.

Loss is also a major trauma for many and can create doubt and anxiety, leaving us with questions like “if my grandmother died, could my mom or dad die, too?” And “if this happens, who will take care of me?” Unfortunately, I think we all have some form of trauma in our past which, without support, could leave us more susceptible to anxiety.

In coming back to the idea of doubt and how we see ourselves, I know how related anxiety and depression can be. When, for example, we view ourselves as not good enough, meaning smart enough or successful enough or whatever in comparing ourselves with others, we knock ourselves down a peg and again allow more potential angst (where we might question other abilities) to set in. There may be more things going on that fuel anxiety as well.

What You May Be Doing Now to Let Anxiety Live
I would like to begin a discussion here on sleep and how powerful sleep is in our lives. Sleep will impact our mood and affect, and if you are not getting enough of it, you may be putting your mind and body at risk. You see, sleep gives the mind and body an opportunity to shut down all the data and stressors we soak in throughout the day. Even if we are committed to our work and daily efforts, these activities take up mind space, and we all need breaks. Like the computer we may use at work or home, our brain needs to power down also.

Sleeping can also help our muscles relax, as all the pressure from our day can create tension in our neck, back, and so forth. The mind needs this time as well to, if not totally release the struggles or pain, perhaps at least allow the good thoughts within us (confidence, problem solving skills, etc.) to come back to surface and challenge the doubt. I am sure many have heard of the idea of “just sleep on it” to see if we can awake in a better place to address the concern. What can happen when we are at a loss for answers is that too much information, combined with a build-up of emotions (frustration, confusion, etc.) can overwhelm our focus, and rest is a wonderful way to rejuvenate.

Attacking ourselves on everyday issues (such as “I didn’t finish ____ at work. I’m so dumb,” or “I can’t believe I forgot to take the trash out. Why am I always such a _____?”) and reliving past issues (such as “if I only would have done better in school things would not be this way in my life,” or “had I only waited a little longer to be married, I wouldn’t have made all those other mistakes”) do not help our mindset and certainly create and/or grow levels of anxiety.

More to come……

Related articles:
Exploring the Effects of Anxiety
Transforming Grief and Trauma
The Importance of Attachment in Early Caregiving

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Stuart A. Kaplowitz, MFT, therapist in Chino, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • audra


    April 23rd, 2012 at 3:32 PM

    I am one those rare adults who honestly did not develop such anxiety until I graduated from college and had to enter into the real world.

    I was always such a happy go lucky kid, and school and socializing never bothered me. But now I am always so anxious about everything in life, from my job to relatiionships and everything in between.

    Seriously, sometimes I am even afraid to leave to house becasue I am afraid to face what the day holds. What in the world is wrong with me? I never used to be like this.

  • Barney


    April 23rd, 2012 at 5:33 PM

    A big part of this is just how cruel we are to ourselves. I know that I am harder on myself then anyone else could ever be and it is like adding fule to the fire of that stress of mine. Often the ebst solution is to take a deep breath and give ourselves just a little peace.

  • Stuart Kaplowitz

    Stuart Kaplowitz

    April 23rd, 2012 at 7:57 PM

    Audra, I am sorry to hear this but good for you in reaching out. Life transitions can be a scary time, and graduating (for many of us) means we have to face another world so to speak — I remember feeling angst about this myself way back when. Audra, you need support. Have you considered therapy? Even brief work may be beneficial. Good luck!

  • Marcus


    April 24th, 2012 at 4:12 AM

    I never experienced very much anxiety as an adult until I lost the one girl that I really felt like I was going to marry. But she did not feel that way about me. I guess looking back all of the anxiety I felt over her leaving me stems from the fact that my mom left me with my grandmother to raise me. She was not ready for the responsibility so she handed me off to the one person that I guess she knew would not leave me or let me down. I thought that I was ok with that because my gram was such a good woman that I never really thought that I was missing out on anything until now. Now I look at it and think about how close I probably held this woman that meant so much to me in my life, and in effect I smothered her too much. I did not want her to leave me, but what I failed to see was that I could not hold her back if she was ready to fly.

  • Stuart Kaplowitz

    Stuart Kaplowitz

    April 24th, 2012 at 12:22 PM

    Barney, that was well said.

    Marcus, your insight is incredible. I am glad your grandmother could be there and yet the circumstances were indeed bittersweet. I can certainly appreciate how, in your shoes, anyone could be stuck with the pain of “what if I lose again” and have doubt and angst about it. I hope you too get the support through this. Therapy can be so wonderful for us all. Good luck!

  • Marcus


    April 24th, 2012 at 3:58 PM

    Thanks for the encouragement Stuart. That’s what I need right now!

  • Ray


    April 24th, 2012 at 11:55 PM

    Never easy to get over things close to you going wrong.The anxiety and trauma can stick for years.

    And that is exactly why trying to get over things is just so important.We may think an issue is past us at times.But a deep look will tell us that it is still stuck on to us.The sooner we get rid of or get over such issues that might create problems in the future the better it is in order to save and protect ourselves against anxiety and depression.

  • Stuart Kaplowitz

    Stuart Kaplowitz

    May 3rd, 2012 at 1:52 PM

    well said Ray

  • Me


    June 22nd, 2014 at 4:06 AM

    This is spot on for me. My mother didn’t make me feel loved unconditionally, she always criticised rather than support me, she passed her anxieties to me and even when she tried to shelter me she didn’t do it in the right way – for example, when I was 8 my mother died in the hospital, my mother didn’t tell me but then I found out by chance and it was horrible.
    Thankfully therapy made me realise her mistakes and my STRENGTHS.

  • Me


    June 22nd, 2014 at 4:08 AM

    Erm, “my GRANDmother died in the hospital”

  • Stuart K.

    Stuart K.

    June 23rd, 2014 at 9:48 AM

    Thanks Me. I am glad therapy helped and that you received support. I am sorry for your loss

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