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Is worry infectious?

Ever thought about anxiety? Where it comes from? How it influences and affects those closest to us? Is it, for instance, genetic or a product of our environment? Should we be thinking about such things in altogether different terms?

Most people, we think it’s fair to say, don’t have such thoughts or ever ask such questions. 

In the main, anxiety just is – something that is always lingering in the background, something that, perhaps, has always just been there.

Yet research has found that, when it comes to families, our anxieties impact on each other, and that transmission might be more environmental than anything else.

Published in the Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, the research paper in question (titled Anxiety in the family – genetically-informed analysis of transactional associations between mother, father and child anxiety symptoms) makes for interesting reading.

You can find it online here or watch a short video abstract from co-author Yasmin Ahmadzadeh on YouTube. 

The findings, we think, are fascinating. For anyone who has questions about anxiety, where it comes from and how it influences and affects those closest to us, the answers couldn’t be more interesting.

Having studied 305 adoptive families in the United States (the children having been adopted at birth, and having never lived with their birth parents), the research team took the established notion that anxieties often run in families and attempted to work out why.

Typically, it has been assumed that parents’ mental health influences children’s, but this research highlighted – perhaps for the first time – that the effects of a child’s mental health on parents should also be considered.

“This is the first genetically-informed study to test the theoretical hypothesis that both parents and children can be implicated in perpetuating intergenerational anxiety associations,” the paper noted.

It’s a hypothesis that, previously, has been little considered or questioned.

But think about this for a moment:

That during middle childhood, anxiety in children can predict anxiety in mothers 12 months later.

Or that a father’s anxiety can predict future anxiety in children.

Similarities in mental health between parents and children have for a long time been assumed to be genetic rather than environmental in nature.

Yet in studying adoptive children – and in finding such strong links between involved parties – the researchers have concluded that the truth, perhaps, is otherwise.

The researchers studied whether child anxieties could be associated with the mental health of their birth parents, but discovered no evidence of a strong genetic link. 

Yet the clear links between children and their adoptive parents showed that something was going on in the family environment, with family members showing obvious similarities to each other in terms of their respective anxieties.

The conclusion? 

That, in a holistic way, all family members can influence one another when it comes to anxiety.

That, having begun to answer some of the important questions that we asked above, further research is required in order to help us all understand anxiety, where it comes from and how it affects those closest to us, even better. 

To quote from the paper’s conclusions, ‘Results show environmentally-mediated associations between parent and child anxiety symptoms. Results support developmental theories suggesting that child anxiety symptoms can exert influence on caregivers, and mothers and fathers may play unique roles during the development of child symptoms. Further research is needed on the role of genetic transmission associated with anxiety symptoms in biologically-related families. In the meantime, researchers and clinicians should strive to include fathers in assessments and consider the effects of child symptoms on caregivers.”

Ever thought about anxiety?

Please have a read. It’s interesting stuff, indeed. 

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