Reader Q&A: Chronic Anxiety

The following questions were submitted by a reader like you.

What do you think about the concept that our first 7 years shape who we become and our beliefs for life unless we make an effort to change that?

Life experience is an important factor in helping you form reasonable interpretations of what happens to you. Because you don’t have much life experience as a young child, you will be very prone to accept any beliefs that are handed to you regarding yourself, others, God, the meaning of life, and your future happiness. If you have people feeding you very upsetting beliefs during this period, you will probably not feel you have any grounds for rejecting them, so this will negatively impact you.

But that said, there’s nothing magical about the first seven years. Yes, you are extra vulnerable due to your lack of life experience and limited abilities, but to suggest that those seven years lock you into a pattern for the rest of your life is too extreme.

From birth to around age 30, you work on developing who you will be as an adult. Forming your adult identity is a long process which involves a lot of shifting about. Who you plan be as a child will change drastically in the teen years, then again in the 20s. It is a natural part of “growing up” to change your personal priorities several times in major ways.

Young children have simply not been exposed to many important life concepts. By age 7, there are many topics which you simply haven’t formed any opinion about, yet many of those topics become important when you are an adult. Because a 7-year-old has such a limited understanding of the world and themselves, it isn’t realistic to say that the child determines who the adult will be. Certainly trauma can occur during the first 7 years, but it’s also possible for early life trauma to be resolved while the child is still young. So you shouldn’t view your first seven years as locking you in to who you will be. If you personally became traumatized in those early years, then for you, that time period will remain very significant until the trauma is resolved. But for someone else, those first seven years might not contain the events that they feel most impacted them as adults.

When introspecting and trying to see why you are the way you are so that you can improve, where do you start?

The first place to start is to try and track the logic your mind is using today. Begin with a specific behavior that is bothering you, such as being very quick to lose your temper or self-harming or becoming severely depressed whenever you are criticized. Once you’ve chosen one behavior to focus on, try writing out the stream of thoughts that occur in your mind when that behavior is happening. You can usually trigger a helpful stream of thoughts just by imagining yourself in the situation that tends to trigger your negative behavior. The goal here is to form a written transcript of what is happening in your head. Try to be specific and look for the logical arguments your mind is making. For example, you find yourself suddenly feeling down whenever someone suggests how you could do better in some area. Instead of writing “I suddenly feel sad when I’m criticized”, try to capture the logic. A helpful tool here can be to keep asking yourself why questions. For example:

Why do you feel sad? I feel sad because I feel like I’m failing.

Why are you failing? I’m failing because I didn’t do ___ in the best possible way. I failed to be perfect.

Why does it matter if you’re not perfect? It feels like a terrible thing if I’m not perfect. Like something bad will happen. Like maybe I’ll lose something or someone.

Each time your mind supplies an answer, try to gently prod it to share its deeper logic with you by asking questions. But when using this approach, it’s very important not to criticize what your mind says, or to go into the exercise already assuming you know what your mind will say. You want to approach this with a willingness to be surprised by your mind suddenly springing a reason on you that you didn’t expect. You will know that you’ve completed the logic stream if you can trace it back to one or more life events which seemed to reinforce the logic your mind is using today.

Before being born, do we inherit our parent’s patterns?

Many people believe that our basic personalities are shaped by our genes. While we are all certainly handed a basic genetic package, in real life, that package is never a clone of either of your parent’s genes. Instead, children seem to be a blend of traits that are pulled from all over their family tree, sometimes feeling that they have more in common with a grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt or uncle than they do their biological parents. In other cases, children feel like total misfits in their family, born with personalities and interests that don’t seem to be shared by anyone close to them.

I personally don’t subscribe to the theory that our parents’ genes determine who we are. I believe humans are formed as individual packages by a purposeful Creator who isn’t making it a priority to ensure that family members have a certain amount of traits in common with each other. But of course it’s only natural for family members to try to find common ground with each other, and in doing so, I believe the idea of “inherited traits” becomes greatly exaggerated and made out to be much more important than it is.

To develop self-understanding, I feel a far more effective approach is to realize that you have a base personality which your life experiences will modify but can also obscure. Some tempering of extreme traits is good, like when the girl who loves to scream learns to control her emotional outbursts and becomes less dramatic. But trauma can also bury natural traits, cloaking them over with thick substitute traits that are attempts to defend from harm. An example would be the boy who loves to paint, but because of a disapproving father, he tries to deny this part of himself and instead forces himself to pursue a career in a sport that he hates. This kind of cloaking is not healthy and proper healing strategies will cause it to be removed, allowing the true personality to flower. In the case of the boy who loves to paint, he needs to reach a point where he abandons his sports career and gives himself permission to explore his artistic passions.

Allowing your true self to thrive is different than returning to who you were as a child. Your true personality needs to be shaped and tempered through the process of maturity. Children are not mature, so trying to regress back to who you were when you were young is not a healthy goal. Instead, you need to look at who you are today and ask, Am I allowing myself to express my true interests or am I trying to deny or criticize the things that I am sincerely interested in? Every human has as set of skills and passions which will naturally attract them to some activities and repel them from others. When we force ourselves to wallow in what we hate while making it a crime to explore our natural interests and talents, we only intensify our internal misery.

I have been told I have always been anxious as a kid without something big seemingly happening. It of course affected me and drains my life to this day, to be so hyper-vigilant. But I can’t seem to pinpoint to an event, trace it and heal it.

The fact that you can trace the anxiety back to childhood is a helpful clue. The fact that other people do not identify anything “big” happening to you simply means they were either unaware of what happened or they discounted it as being insignificant. Other people’s assessment doesn’t count when you’re trying to track down root causes. It was your own internal perspective that caused you to decide you had reason to be fearful as a child.

Anxiety is a form of fear, and fear is always logical. So as a child, you were not anxious for no reason. You would have felt that you had good reason to be on edge. Chronic anxiety is a result of the mind trying to keep its defenses constantly at the ready. This suggests your mind felt continuously threatened in your normal life.

Many things can trigger a strong feeling that disaster is about to happen at any moment. It would be useful to consider how you calm you felt your home environment was. No one has to be attacking you directly for you to feel unsafe. Parents who frequently argue or seem upset in their own worlds can be very alarming to kids. As a child, you instinctively understand that you depend on your parents to care of you. So if you were picking up on tensions between them or other critical family members, this would have caused you to feel very unsafe and constantly on edge.

When we have a solution to a problem, we are calmer even when we expect that problem to reoccur. But when we can’t work out a good solution, we remain very anxious between times when the problem occurs. Persistent anxiety in a young child suggests the child has either been greatly upset by something big that happened to them (which you don’t seem to feel is the case), or they expect to keep getting thrust into upsetting situations that they don’t feel equipped for (such as an upsetting school environment or sessions with a mean babysitter), or they are feeling unsafe in their home environment (due to tensions between family members).

The fact that this childhood anxiety is still plaguing you today suggests it is attached to a very basic need that still feels under threat. A useful thing to consider would be if you see any similarities between your current home environment and your home environment as a child. For example, if your child anxiety was caused by parents who were nice to you yet constantly fighting with each other, and then as an adult today you are living next to neighbors who are always getting into screaming fights, the friction between your neighbors can cause the same feelings of distress that you felt when your parents fought.

Anxiety that comes and goes suggests a threat that is not always present. Chronic anxiety in a young child suggests that whatever the threat is, it feels like it is always hovering. If you personally felt that your home was calm and safe as a child, and that you felt generally at ease with the other members of the household, it would be useful to look outside of the home for potential threats. But bear in mind that there is a big difference between you feeling like your home was happy and other people telling you that your home was happy. A common issue that makes identifying root causes difficult is when we start discounting certain issues due to other people ruling those things out for us. For example, parents who got into violent fights with each other might insist that they are “happily married” and that they have a “good relationship,” therefore their children have no grounds for being upset by their behavior. Be cautious about letting other people define what is and isn’t a valid reason for you to be upset. Your behavior as a child tells you that you did feel very upset by something, and those feelings need to be validated, not dismissed.

In looking outside the home, consider what your routine was as a child. What kinds of places were you shuffled off to? Daycare? School? Music lessons? Friend’s houses? Did you find any of these alternate environments particularly stressful?

Regular health check-ups or medical interventions can easily traumatize children. But if your anxiety was caused by some kind of medical experience, you will usually have other symptoms as well that result in you feeling hypersensitive about certain areas of your body being seen or touched.

Chronic anxiety is a logical response to the belief that you are always in danger or that some bad thing could strike at any moment. Your mind has a very specific idea of what it feels threatened by, and its anxious response indicates that it currently doesn’t feel like it has any good defenses in place. To track down what the specific threat is, see if you can notice any other defensive behavior patterns that might help you narrow down the possibilities. You mention being “hyper-vigilant.” What specific forms does this take? Excessive locking (such as locking the door to the bathroom when you’re home alone) indicates a fear of being physically attacked. Excessive monitoring (such as placing cameras in every room of your house) can indicate a fear of physical attack or of being spied on, both of which can be triggered by a history of feeling like you were denied any personal privacy. Are there particular types of news stories or movie themes that trigger a spike of panic for you? If so, those topics will be closely linked to the specific threat your mind is dwelling on.

The fact that you’re struggling to chase this down indicates that your subconscious is intentionally withholding information from your conscious. This is a self-protective measure. Your subconscious can handle more stress than your conscious can, so when it is grappling with big fears, it will often try to block your conscious from understanding exactly what those fears are. These kinds of blocks can often be worked around by using a very sympathetic and respectful approach to self-analysis. If you start pressuring your subconscious to share while you act impatient and annoyed with it, you will get more resistance. It’s vital to understand that all of this anxiety is your mind’s attempt to help you by trying to anticipate when danger will strike.

It’s always useful to rule out spiritual issues. Some children are handed horror stories about God when they are young which greatly upset them. If you believed in God as a child, was He/She a positive or negative figure? Being taught at a young age that God doesn’t like or want you or that you’re going to some horrible place when you die can easily result in chronic fear. Some parents blur the line between themselves and God by claiming to be passing on messages from Him while they dish out harsh criticisms. Such behavior can easily result in spiritual trauma. But if you are dealing with this kind of trauma, you will have a lot of stress in your personal relationship with God today. Your situation sounds like it is being caused by psychological factors rather than spiritual ones, but it’s good to be aware of both concepts.

Your great dependency on adults to care of you when you are young makes pleasing those adults feel like a critical issue. It’s useful to think about how well you got along with your guardians. Were they easy to succeed with or did you feel like you were never doing good enough? Because parents control the food and affection, children can easily link their inability to please their parents with the threat of being physically or emotionally starved. This situation becomes worse when you are forced to compete with a sibling who is always outshining you or seems to be favored by your parents. Consider your relationships with all of the members of your household when you were young before you rule out the possibility of in home threats.

For more help with identifying root causes, see Practical Steps for Correcting Traumatic Beliefs.

Looking for advice? You can submit an anonymous request through the Ask a Question page.