Know the Risk Factors
for Anxiety Disorders

The single most common risk factor is a family history of anxiety problems.

Anxiety problems have a strong genetic component. They run in families, as do the perceptual differences and the hyper-responsive brain activation patterns found in individuals with anxiety disorders.

Is trauma a risk factor?

The vast majority of anxiety symptoms clinicians see every day are NOT caused by trauma. Some children do suffer from anxiety disorders as a result of trauma, but usually a genetic predisposition has set the stage for the anxiety disorder to develop.

Those with genetic predispositions are more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD (which involves exposure to different types of trauma) than those without the genetic leaning. In fact, scientists at UCLA pinpointed two genes that increase risk for PTSD.

Phobias (e.g., excessive fear of animals, insects, extreme weather, needle/injections, blood, natural disasters) are often assumed to be caused by a traumatic experience. In fact, this is rarely the case. More commonly, the distress a child with a phobia experiences in the feared situation is so extreme that it feels traumatizing.

Other anxiety-related disorders are also often incorrectly assumed to be the result of traumatic experiences. Trying to link past experiences to anxiety problems is not an effective strategy, and doing so will worsen anxiety problems over time.

Parental accommodation

Parenting styles do not cause anxiety disorders, but how parents respond to an anxious child can feed and maintain a child’s anxiety disorder.

Parental accommodation, in simple terms, means a parent or caregiver changes their behavior to alleviate a child’s anxiety. Examples include allowing avoidance, giving excessive reassurance, and performing rituals with a child (e.g., cleaning their cutlery when a child fears contamination, following excessive nighttime rituals, eliminating items that trigger a child’s obsession).

Research shows that the more parents or caregivers engage in accommodation behaviors, the more severe a child’s anxiety becomes. Given that 97% of parents of anxious children engage in such behaviors, it is crucial that parents identify and then gradually eliminate their participation in these behaviors.

Other factors

We don’t understand everything about the causes of anxiety disorders. Many factors can co-occur with predispositions that result in anxiety disorders, and every individual is unique. The following are factors to consider.

Social media: Social media can amplify anxiety (and depression) problems. It presents too much information to young people, whose brains haven’t developed enough to cope with it all. SM also leads kids to compare themselves to idealized versions of others in terms of physical appearance, social prowess, life experiences, etc.

Social isolation: The Covid-19 pandemic led to prolonged isolation and hindered kids’ ability to connect meaningfully with others. Social media contributes to isolation because kids engage in fewer live social activities. Time alone without structured activities is also associated with increased anxiety among those who suffer from anxiety problems.

Stigmatization of mental health problems: Both kids and parents are ill equipped to get help for psychological problems. Parents often wrongly believe talking to their kids about psychological problems will worsen problems. Our society still views mental health problems as signs of weakness or bad parenting. Kids often feel ashamed of their psychological problems.

Depression: Anxiety and depressive disorders are closely related. For individuals with both disorders, when one gets worse, the other does as well.

Sleep: Whether due to too much homework and academic pressure or excessive use of social media and video games, kids are getting less sleep than ever. Without enough sleep, kids become more irritable and have fewer psychological resources to cope with challenges.

Bullying: Bullying is often associated with anxiety at school and with school refusal behaviors.

Gender: Females are more likely to suffer from anxiety and related disorders.

ADHD: The impulsivity often seen in kids with ADHD can heighten behavioral responses to the distress they experience as a result of an anxiety-related disorder.